THE SUMMER IS GONE
A sentimental look at a reform era few can remember fondly, Thesummerisgone is already shaping up as 2017's indie favorite for China on the festival circuit. In giving the economic upheavals of the 1990s a sentimental gloss, director Zhang Dalei avoids the grit of many of his contemporaries
Set in the backdrop of the 1990s market reform in Inner Mongolia’s capital Hohhot, director Zhang Dalei’s Golden Horse Award-winning solo debut The Summer is Gone《八月》( ) is a personal tribute to the era in the form of a bittersweet, but mostly static childhood memory.
Summer certainly speaks the film language of the classic Taiwanese New Wave, tapping into personal memory to trace social changes. Having also grabbed the FIPRESCI Prize, and most recently in April, this year’s Best Young Director at the China Film Directors’ Guild award, 35-year-old Zhang spent almost 10 years sporadically working on this autobiographical film, supporting himself with short movies and creative wedding videos. His efforts were finally rewarded with a limited mainland release in late March.
Faithfully mirroring the director’s own childhood, the story starts as 12-year-old Xiaolei enjoys his summer vacation while his mother, a teacher, tries to get him into a prestigious local middle school. His father, a film editor with a boyish lively personality, is reluctant to agree, arguing that a person should be able to earn a living relying on their talent, not the school they attend. This belief is put to the test when the father’s work unit, the state-owned Inner Mongolia Film Studio, has its funding cut off amid a turbulent series of reforms aimed at weaning state-owned enterprises off the government teat; suddenly the studio is expected to find projects and investment on its own. Through the eyes of Xiaolei, we witness the once-united work collective gradually collapse and the effect this has on his family and those around them.
Shot beautifully in black and white, Zhang’s choice of palette is meant to reflect his view that the decade he grew up in was pure and simple in terms of people and social relationships, a point he has expressed repeatedly in various interviews, including one with Cinema World magazine. This explains why 1994, a year many associate with massive layoffs and economic suffering, is so affectionately treated in the film.
Having grown up among friends and neighbors who
staffed Hohhot’s film industry, Zhang later attended the St. Petersburg State University of Film and Television, which, thanks to Russia’s withering movie industry, offered an education with a rich artistic tradition but relatively small commercial influence.
Zhang’s depiction of his hometown, a city usually associated with scorching summer sunshine and dry weather, is so peaceful that many Chinese audiences have mistaken it for a southern town. Apart from the Mongolian song “Mother” sung at a farewell dinner, there’s little sense of locality. Instead, a luster of tender reminiscence lingers over scenes of families losing their income, relatives quarrelling, teens being bullied, and a bed-ridden grandmother. Through the eyes of Summer’s carefree protagonist, all are remembered fondly; even the film’s tagline is “Hold on to the good times.” Summer reflects Zhang’s dream to return to a simpler time, a “golden age” where conflicts are generally resolved peacefully, and complications—such as being turfed out of a comfortable rice bowl and forced to pursue individual fortunes— belong to a more recent era.
As a member of the post-80s generation, more at peace with recent history than its predecessors, Zhang’s autobiographical style recalls Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early work The Time to Live and the Time to Die《童年往事》( , 1986), which won a Golden Horse for Best Original Script a little over three decades ago. Hou’s film was also based on his own experiences of growing up in the 1940s, when ties between Taiwan and the mainland were severed. But while the cinematography is similarly poetic, Hou’s gaze is bitterly honest on generation gaps, growing pains, and the impact of a particular social environment on individuals.
Another festival favorite, Hong Kong director Alex Law’s Echoes of the Rainbow《岁月神偷》( , 2009), which won Best Film in the Generation Kplus category at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, drew on a childhood spent in 1960s and 70s Hong Kong under colonial government, warily viewing events on the mainland such as the Cultural Revolution. While everyday life takes on a fairytale-like quality for the child protagonist, Law is unflinching in detailing the everyday racism, pressures to survive, and bitterness of death.
It’s this lack of personal growth that’s at the center of Summer’s problem. Both the central male roles seem to merely bob with the tide amidst tumultuous changes; it’s Xiaolei’s mother, a supporting role, who does most of the heaving lifting in the plot. Near the end, there’s a scene where the family’s broad-leaved orchid cactus finally blossoms; its brief florescence is supposed to signify the fleeting summer as a cherished memory. Perhaps it’s more fitting as a metaphor for the whole film—an exquisite personal story, evoking the childhood memories of a generation, but as transient and illusory as the passing season.
Based on their stage play of the same name, Zhou Shen and Liu Lu’s no-frills hit Mr. Donkey《驴得水》( ) is not just a smoldering critique of corruption within modern society. It may represent a precedent for homegrown comedies to match, and in some cases outstrip, their Hollywood counterparts.
While Hollywood hits like Logan, Arrival, and Resident Evil have dominated the Chinese box office this year— nine of the 10 top-grossing hits of 2017 so far have been Hollywood productions—the film market has undergone several changes over the past few years. These have included the sleeper success of nonstate-backed Chinese films such as Lost in Thailand《泰( 》, 2013) and The Mermaid《美人鱼》( , 2016), which raked in 208 million USD and 553 million USD respectively, and gave hopes to the country’s stagnating film industry ( The Mermaid, Stephen Chow’s environmentalist comedy epic, still holds the number-one gross earnings spot, above Furious 7).
Enter Zhou and Liu’s Mr. Donkey, a low-budget look into the human and emotional roots of corruption that quickly exploded into the market, earning rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. The film’s dark humor, punchy delivery, and witty script quickly made it last year’s highest-rated movie on China’s IMBD equivalent Douban, garnering an impressive 8.3 out of 10. Its success has prompted a revival of the original play, most recently in Beijing in April, as well as interest in the commercial possibilities of independent film.
Recently, the greatest upsets in the industry have not come from massive productions going head-to-head, but low budget New Wave directors going gold: the serial killer thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice《白日烟火》( , 2014) garnered both awards (including a Golden Bear) and commercial success internationally and at home, while Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin《天注定》( , 2013) was widely admired in China, despite never being approved for domestic boxoffice consumption. Meanwhile Zhang Yimou’s sci-fi fantasy opera The Great Wall《长城》( ), replete with 3D visuals and a ponytailed Matt Damon, was so widely
panned that People’s Daily claimed that reviewers’ negative criticisms were causing “serious harm to the Chinese film environment.”
Initially written for film, directors Zhou and Liu were found to adapt the script for Mr. Donkey for the stage due to lack of money, then turned it back into a screenplay after a successful theatrical run. The film is set in 1942 in a remote rural village in China. There, a school administration team is struggling to find funding, as their school is defunct and bereft of students.
In the first act, they find a potential saving grace: by naming the titular pack beast, which brings them water daily, as an English teacher, the protagonists are able to procure additional funding. But they are inevitably drawn, too, into a web of lies and deceit. The farce thickens when a government administrator decides to pay a visit, forcing the teachers to see their improvised plan (and own foibles) to the bitter end: One teacher has digestion problems, another is hottempered, the dean is trying to raise a daughter, while their solution is dress up an illiterate local coppersmith— who can speak Mongolian—to play the “English teacher.”
The second act sees the unraveling of these characters and their lives, and the plot quickly sheds its comedic nature, as each character becomes a study of identity and greed under duress. The government official, too, has his own bad habits, in this case “the optimal allocation of resources,” namely taking backhanders.
While classified as a comedy, the movie is a not-so-subtle look at how rational acts of self-interest can quickly become absurd, especially when looking at how the film portrays government and modern society. The directors are able to get away with such scathing critiques of greed and corruption by presenting its presentday commentary in a historical setting, in this case the Republic of China.
Regulations in the Chinese film market have limited foreign imports in order to boost Chinese films’ rankings. But the fact that smaller productions that eschew the cookie-cutter mainstream culture are slugging it out with American and Chinese films for the top-earner spot is a testament to the strength and progress of China’s domestic talents.
While Mr. Donkey is an independent film, its message has resonated with such magnitude it has shot to instant fame. It is a relevant and timely commentary on the concerns of the everyman and woman, especially regarding corruption and the individual’s place within the rule of law. The conversation it started should not be ignored.
If the Mandate of Heaven had a physical form, it would be a four-inch square block of the purest jade in the realm. Its base would be carved with dragons circling the message, “Having Received the Mandate of Heaven, Live Long and Prosper,” in case of confusion. It would have been commissioned by China’s first emperor Qinshihuang (秦始皇), and passed from ruling dynasty to dynasty—until disappearing for good over 1,000 years ago.
Sounds like the stuff of legend? The existence of the Heirloom Seal of the Realm (传国玉玺, “Jade Seal Passed Through the Realm”), as this relic was known, is well attested in ancient history books, but the object has been reported lost then miraculously recovered so frequently in its 1,000-year history that one has to take the details with a grain of salt. On the other hand, records of emperors gaining and losing what was effectively the physical embodiment of their right to rule has proven to be a useful narrative device for historians to ruminate on the nature of power.
Personal seals have been used to authenticate documents in China since at least the Zhou (1046 BCE – 256 BCE), when the character 玺 ( xi) first appeared in the records, later becoming the exclusive character for imperial seals. Highly ornamental, usually made from jade or gold, and topped with three-dimensional carvings of auspicious symbols, the xi seems to have been used for ceremony as much as (if not more than) stamping documents. The Qing emperor Qianlong (乾隆) had as many as 1,800 seals made, but we only have records of about 30; most were crafted to commemorate events like imperial birthdays and military victories, and kept in a special hall of the Forbidden City. One of Qianlong’s seals, made of steatite and decorated with nine dragons, fetched 22 million USD at a Paris auction last December.
Likewise, no prints by the Heirloom Seal exist, and most historical paintings simply show it held in the triumphant hands of a new emperor. But it’s no great stretch that a traditional Chinese implement for personal identification could be reimagined as a stamp of identity of the realm itself. Historical records about the making of the Heirloom Seal—written in the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), the Qin’s successors—conflated the seal with the legend of the Heshibi (和氏璧), a priceless jade disk coveted by various kings during the Warring States period (475 BCE – 221 BCE). Qinshihuang is said to have turned the disk into the seal when he united the realm, and the third Qin emperor handed it to the Han’s founder as part of his surrender, thereby kicking off a new, continuous, and linear paradigm of power transfer in the history of China.
The seal disappeared multiple times as it passed down the ruling lineage. Qinshihuang, never a favorite with the Han historians, was said to have cast the seal into Dongting Lake to ensure a smooth passage for his boat; it was found and returned by an honest farmer eight years later. In periods between dynasties, rival warlords often claimed to possess the seal when they were gaining the upper hand, while it disappeared again in times when the winner was unclear. Though some records state it was lost for good when the last emperor of the Later Tang state (923 – 936) burned down his palace as the invaders closed in, records of the Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127) state that it resurfaced 150 years later via another sharp-eyed farmer— just when the realm was feeling pressure from invaders in the north.
But though the seal symbolized the emperor’s suitability to rule, historians have been careful to note that it wasn’t just by grabbing the object that emperors secured a ruling mandate for themselves. When a coup was staged in eight CE by a Han official named Wang Mang (王莽), the Heirloom Seal was one of the first things he demanded from the deposed emperor’s family, and it was promptly removed from him when the Han was restored just 15 years later. The warlord Yuan Shu (袁术), according to The Records of the Three Kingdoms, advertised his possession of the seal at the same time he declared himself emperor, but other warlords rallied against him anyway because he was a backstabbing tyrant.
By contrast, Yuan’s rival, the Machiavellian Cao Cao (曹操), also claimed to have obtained the seal sometime after Yuan’s death. The Records state Cao was asked whether he would declare himself emperor, but he replied, “If heaven wills it, then I could be King Wen of Zhou dynasty.” This referenced the father of the founder of the Zhou dynasty, who never took the throne but was posthumously named as king by his son. Accordingly, Cao spent his warlord career stating that he was “supporting” the fading Han emperor, and his son Cao Pi (曹丕), founder of the Wei kingdom (220 – 265), made a show of refusing the Han emperor’s abdication three times, before agreeing with the remark, “I finally understand what it was like when [legendary kings] Shun and Yu sagely accepted an abdication.”
It seemed that the seal, like the Mandate of Heaven, was believed to act of its own accord: You didn’t seek it out, instead heaven vouchsafed it if you showed potential to govern well. In that sense it might have been quite easy for people to accept that the seal could almost magically disappear and reappear depending on how stable or centralized the emperor’s power appeared to be at a particular time.
But this was subverted by the seal’s final disappearance, which different records put at various times between the Later Tang and the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1206 – 1368). By the time of the Ming (1368 – 1644), the seal was indisputably gone forever—records state that the founding Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), searched as far as the Mongols’ homeland in the North, but couldn’t find the seal. The Ming era was also when emperors began to produce more commonplace, personal seals en masse, culminating in Qianlong’s vast collection; as Zhu Yuanzhang himself said, his reign was a time for the common people to “dispense with cults and fall in with the right ways.” The narrative of a mythical seal, derived from the old-school Confucian ethos of divinely mandated rights and responsibilities, may have become less significant as Zhu consolidated the realm on more secular lines—military, commerce, and stringent laws.
In recent decades, several seals unearthed in the Chinese countryside—including one by a 13-year-old boy in Shaanxi in 1955—were thought to be candidates for the lost treasure, but ended up being the many other imperial seals from the Qing and Ming. In 2015, a new conspiracy theory was reported by ifeng.com that the seal actually survived into the Republic of China and had sunk in a shipwreck on the Bohai Sea in 1948, when the Nationalist government tried to evacuate it before the Communists took Beijing.
And though this claim is supported by neither historical evidence or logic—for why would the Nationalists or anyone keep the seal a secret for so long?—ancient chroniclers would have been proud of how well this solution narratively mirrors the political limbo between the two parties at the war’s end. No farmer or fisherman has yet come forward with the find.
The government inspector and his fellow conspirators prepare for another visit—this time by an American—in Mr.donkey
a watermelon during a trip to rural Hohhot Xiaolei and his father share