On the surface, just about everything in Dalei Zhang’s shimmering debut feature is gorgeous and peaceful. “The Summer is Gone” is the kind of movie where something as innocuous as a grassy field tufted with flapping plastic bags is packed with a resonant beauty. But that beauty is risky to unpack, as it is layered atop a murky and unresolved fright about the future and what it will bring.
Set somewhere in Mongolia during the 1990s, Zhang’s loose and episodic movie follows 12-year-old Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi, a nonprofessional like the rest of the cast) over one seemingly prosaic but ultimately momentous summer as the country transitions from state enterprise to capitalism. The borders of Xiaolei’s life are framed early on. His family’s neighborhood is a workaday place of short apartment buildings bisected by tree-lined alleyways. The latter is where everyone seems to spend most of their time, gossiping and shooting pool on an outdoor table. It’s a warm, bucolic setting, where the air is occasionally filled with the beautiful notes of an opera singer practicing on his balcony and a group of people will instantly jump to the aid of a stranger whose truck needs a push.
Xiaolei flits in and out of the adult world’s rituals of meals, visits with grandparents, and talk about school as he focuses on the important things in life: going to the movies, dreaming, swimming, and practicing with the nunchucks that the Bruce Lee-loving kid is never without. A skinny, watchful presence, he’s all eyes and ears, monitoring the neighborhood and all the little dramas and crises whose importance he can barely comprehend.
This lack of seriousness doesn’t sit well with his mother Guo (Guo Yanyuan), a serious-minded teacher who is eager to get him into a highly-ranked middle school. The father, Chen (Zhang Chen) is more sanguine about Xiaolei’s immaturity, as he barely seems to be taking on any responsibilities, either. Chen’s job at a state-run film studio that employs much of the neighborhood is in jeopardy. But Chen can’t quite wrap his head around needing to cozy up to a man he despises to keep on working. Instead he watches “Taxi Driver” and avoids planning for the coming economic shift that’s already disrupting the neighborhood’s social fabric.
We hear a lot about disruption these days. But too few filmmakers honestly grapple with how these titanic forces upend the lives of people with no control over them. Zhang doesn’t take the issue head on; there are no polemics here. Instead, he builds the structure of a drowsy summer idyll — replete with many of the form’s tropes, from run-ins with a bully and securing a first kiss — around a core of anxiety and fright. As the summer progresses and talk of “reform” heightens, the mood darkens. It’s a slight difference, as Zhang frames everything through Xiaolei’s not-always comprehending gaze. But as nervousness about competition increases, the neighborhood’s group dynamic starts to fray.
Shooting in crystalline, pin-sharp black-and-white, Zhang evokes a timeless quality whose seeming serenity is both ironic counterpoint to the changing times and nostalgic longing for the past. There’s more than a little Terence Davies in this approach, particularly when Chen’s band of former coworkers raise their voices in melancholy song as they are about to part ways near the end of the movie. Like with Davies, Zhang’s take on family relationships and the past is nuanced in method more than substance. The nostalgia of “The Summer is Gone” for a communitarian past couldn’t be more straightforward, bordering on the two-dimensional. But the artistry and humanity of Zhang’s approach is little short of wondrous. [A-]