Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 28, 2017 4:20 pm 
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About a boy

The style of Zhang Dalei's excellent debut feature links it both to Edward Yang and Jia Zhang-ke: it's a nostalgic, restrained study - far from gaudy coming-of-ageers, of a boy of twelve in the Nineties in the director's hometown in Inner Mongolia, Hohhot, a place and time so quiet it feels sometimes like the Fifties (but trouble is on the way). Unlike Yang's and Jia's early panoramas, here the focus is more modest: a summer before the boy starts middle school. His rather nervous and fussy mother (Guo Yanyuan) is a teacher and wants him to get into an elite school, requiring a good test score, or maybe a bribe as in Mungiu's recent Graduation (NYFF 2016). His father (Zhang Chen) doesn't see the point. His own very real concern, shared with a close group of coworkers who gather socially to drink beer and talk, is that he'll lose his state-run filmmaking job - and his career dreams - in the growing wave or privatization. The film matches public and private: a big transition for the Chinese economy comes with the boy's big jump from elementary school to junior high.

Zhang Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi) is a scrawny kid with matchstick limbs. He always, always has his nunchucks around his neck, and a Bruce Lee poster is his inspiration, but despite a moment of showing off with them in his bedroom, this is a bit of a joke. He is a scrawny kid with matchstick limbs. He is a pensive, but cocky boy.

Xiaolei, as embodied with charm and serenity by Kong Weiyi is a quite ordinary, nondescript boy, but that makes him see more real. He is without discernible ambition, though he goes along - for a while - with his mother's push for him to try to get into an elite school. He is close to his father, physically, even though his dad sometimes loses patience with him. They regularly go to a local - vanishingly - state run cinema where they can in free and watch classic Chinese movies. As Clarence Tsui points out in his Variety review, when the free entry ends is when Xiaolei and his dad try to get into "The Fugitive, the first-ever US film to receive an official release in China back in 1994" - another milestone of the several ones Zhang's meditative screenplay alludes to.

Zhang works quietly (like Yang) but with a full social canvas, using amateur actors throughout, with marvelous social scenes at a restaurant, pool hall, swimming pool, and of tough kids on the street - and a particular tough kid called Saner, a misfit Xiolei admires and, unwelcomely, attaches himself to. The camerawork by Lv Songye quietly soars too. Watch the scene when Xiaolei comes out into a rainstorm at night and watches cops handling some of those toughs: the long corridor of street with bright light at the end silhouetting the action a block away is gorgeous, but because it's black and white it doesn't seem too showy. The only color is at the end when Xiaolei's father has gone away to work on a film, because there's now work for him at home anymore. We have seen his father grouse and worry, and watch foreign videotapes at home.

A moment symbolizing dad's giving up artistic and job hopes comes when he grabs his grainy tape of Scorsese's Taxi Driver - he's been watching the famous "Are you talking to me?" scene over and over - and pulls out the tape in anger. At the end of the summer - which wasn't as peaceful and happy as Xiaolei or his father would have wanted - father boards a bus and rides away to seek work on photo shoots elsewhere. He eventually sends a videotape showing the shoot and him. The grainy video is in color. And that's the end.

Perhaps Tsui is correct: the reality and the changes going on at the time of the film are "certainly much more harsh than the sepia-tinged stories unfolding here." But this is a lovely restrained and slow-building study in childhood and change. There is an awful lot here, and it all fits together subtly and seamlessly.

The Summer Is Gone/Ba yue/八月 (August), 106 mins., debuted 23 July 2016 at the FIRST International Film Festival Xining, also showing at Tokyo, Taipei, Rotterdam, Groningen, and New Directors/New Films, screened at the latter for this review under the auspices of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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