“It makes no difference having a husband or not” a friend of the heroine in Yang Yishu’s One Summer (一个夏天, yī gè xiàtiān) laments, yet Zhen is determined to retreive hers or at least find out why he seems to have been swallowed whole by the contemporary society. Trying her best to live a “normal” life or at least give the semblance of one to her daughter she searches for answers but becomes increasingly disillusioned with every step closer to her husband’s salvation.
Zhen’s otherwise ordinary and comfortable life is disrupted by a doorbell in the middle of the night. Insistent, the bell rings continuously forcing Zhen’s husband Xiaoping to investigate. The ringers turn out to be policemen who make a less than polite request for Xiaoping to accompany them to the station not even allowing him time to say goodbye to his wife or explain what’s going on. The knock at the door is a hallmark of authoritarianism and it’s this cold and austere regime which Zhen finds herself battling. She has no idea why her husband has been taken or to where or for how long. No one can tell her anything either, she’s left entirely alone and in the midst of her confusion must try to balance caring for her young daughter with the increased financial demands of becoming a single mother temporarily or otherwise.
The neighbourhood woman she asks to watch her little girl explains that she can’t help because the house she paid for in the country for her in-laws to live in is going to be knocked down and she needs to go back there to make a fuss and pay some bribes to make the best of a bad situation. Meanwhile, a third party at the lawyer’s office where Zhen goes for help mutters about bribing the judge and she’s later tricked into giving a large sum of money to gangsters on the advice of someone who said they knew how to help Xiaoping.
Chasing the police, she’s denied any sort of information before someone more senior tells her that she’s got the wrong station so they can’t help her anyway and in any case suspects are apparently prevented from seeing their families so there’d be no point in finding him. Later she’s told that she might not be able to see Xiaoping until either the case is dropped or he’s been sentenced which might take “several years”. After exhausting the legal routes she tries asking around their old friends to see if anyone knows anything she doesn’t and discovers that some of them have moved abroad or died in mysterious circumstances. Uni friend Lu now a lawyer and continuing to carry a torch for her agrees to help but also remarks on how she’s changed from the bright and cheerful actress he once knew now a wife and mother assigned to an archive where she subversively helps a young woman research a documentary on a persecuted scholar.
Eventually she discovers that Xiaoping has been hauled in on possibly spurious charges relating to some potentially dodgy dealings at his NGO, accused of illegal fund-raising, tax evasion, and for some reason bigamy which you think would alarm Zhen but it doesn’t seem to suggesting that she either has so much faith in Xiaoping that she refuses to accept it could be true or has decided that it isn’t relevant. On the other hand, the neighbourhood woman offers a few pointed words on experiencing domestic violence from her overbearing husband while her friend laments that hers is always away working so it’s almost as if she weren’t married at all almost implying that Zhen may as well give up her quest because men are unreliable and in some sense always absent even if not literally imprisoned by the state.
And then just as abruptly as it began everything seems to have been “settled” as if it never happened in the first place. The police harassment, necessity of becoming acquainted with her husband’s business affairs, the stress and worry of trying to take care of her daughter and provide her with a stable home, along with the need to run round her old friends begging for help most of them can’t offer all seemingly forgotten in the interests of a return to genial domesticity. Even so a sense of tension remains, the constant anxiety of living under an authoritarian regime in which a knock at the door may come at any time and you may never see your home again.
One Summer streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.
Original trailer (no subtitles)