Summer Is Gone, The (2016)

Review #1,437

Director:  Zhang Dalei 
Cast:  Kong Weiyi, Zhang Chen, Guo Yanyun, Zhang Kun
Plot:  12-year-old Xiaolei enjoys summer with his father, who works at a film studio, and his education-minded mother.  But life is rapidly changing, as stable jobs at state-owned companies disappear.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won 2 Golden Horses - Best Film & Best New Performer.  Nom. for 4 Golden Horses - Best New Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Effects
Runtime:  106min
Rating:  PG13 for some coarse language
International Sales:  PAD International 

The Summer Is Gone had the honour of nabbing Best Film at last year’s Taipei Golden Horse, over favourites The Road to Mandalay and Godspeed.  Just like Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo (2013), which won the same award three years ago, this is a debut feature.  The director is Zhang Dalei from Mainland China. 

Something of a love letter to his own childhood, Zhang pays tribute to the generation that toiled to make sure his generation would live a more comfortable and respectable life.  It is with this context that one could better appreciate the film. 

Without it, The Summer Is Gone, however, still roughly works as a family drama, made in a style loosely influenced by neorealism, though I wouldn’t describe it as a raw or gritty film.  In fact, it is polished and features indelible black-and-white cinematography, which is the film’s strongest suit. 

It is summer in Western China (of the Inner Mongolia region), and Xiaolei the young protagonist anticipates a carefree period until school reopens.  His parents, a sensible mother who’s a teacher, and a rough-edged father who works as part of a film crew, want him to study for his future, a point of consternation for the family as there are limited places in good schools.

Xiaolei sometimes dreams in his sleep, and this provides the film with its more surreal moments, accompanied by ethereal classical music.  I can’t say that these dream sequences work effectively, and tonally they seem off, but Zhang’s intention, I believe, is to juxtapose a child’s natural optimism (be it having a crush on a girl opposite his apartment, or having a blissful time with his father) with the collective pessimism of the adults.

The summer coincides with social and political reformations of state-owned companies, causing uncertainty over the stability of jobs.  This is the early 1990s, somewhat a foreshadowing of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (coincidentally the backdrop of Ilo Ilo), when a similarly-felt uncertainty infected the masses. 

The evocation of a lost time through Zhang’s craft comes across as meaningful and poetic.  However, the issue for me is that it doesn’t quite engage as it should, especially emotionally.  I can’t pinpoint whether it is because of the performances, characterizations, or its tone.  But at the very least, The Summer Is Gone should have enough in its visual tank to pique your curiosity. 

Verdict:  Doesn’t quite engage as it should, this poetic Golden Horse Best Picture winner does however feature indelible black-and-white cinematography.  


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