One Summer (一个夏天, Yang Yishu, 2015)

“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)

Summer of Changsha (六欲天, Zu Feng, 2019)

Summer of Changsha poster 1Escaping from the traumatic past is fast becoming a favourite theme of Chinese cinema, but Summer of Changsha (Liù Yù Tiān) swerves away from the neon-lit, rain-drenched streets of your average melancholy police procedural for the fetid air of sun-baked provincial China where death haunts the shadows. Each dealing (or failing to deal) with guilt and responsibility, a depressed detective and seemingly emotionless doctor bond through a shared sense of impossibility only to discover that there may be a way out after all only not of the kind they might have assumed.

Detective Bin (Zu Feng) has already handed in his resignation but has no real plans for his post-police life. Consumed by powerlessness and regret over failing to prevent the death by suicide of his girlfriend who had been living with longterm depression, he cannot seem to find a place for himself back in the world. When a severed arm is fished up from a local lake, he gets a new sense of purpose and eventually connects the lonely limb to a missing persons ad found after trawling the internet which mentions a prominent scar on the right hand.

The ad was placed by a doctor, Li Xue (Huang Lu), who emotionlessly confirms to Bin and his earthier partner Lei (Chen Minghao) that she believes the hand to be her brother’s, shocking them by correctly guessing where they might have found it. Xue tells them that her brother Yi appeared to her in a dream and showed her where the rest of his body parts are – something later confirmed to be true when the three drive out to a remote spot and dig up a suitcase buried under a tree.

Strangely, Bin takes the “dream” theory at face value with only Lei seemingly unconvinced. He never quite entertains the obvious conclusion that Xue knows where the body parts are because she put them there, even after discovering that the pair were seen to be arguing recently and that their relationship became strained after a tragic accident during which Xue’s daughter, who was suffering with a heart condition, sadly passed away.

What draws Bin to Xue is a shared sadness, a deepening gulf of introspection which, ironically, convinces them they exist outside of regular society and should not permit themselves genuine human connections. Xue’s animosity towards her brother, it seems, was less because of what happened to her daughter than because of his conversion to Buddhism which had, she felt, allowed him to move on and start to forget about their past. By contrast, Xue condemns herself to a life of suffering as atonement, wilfully carrying on an affair with a married surgeon (Tian Yu) she doesn’t seem to like very much solely because his research area was closely connected to her daughter’s condition and if she’d lived he might have saved her. Bin, meanwhile, criticises his partner Lei for trying to ghost a girlfriend, cute as a button Ting Ting (Zhang Qianru), because he thought she was annoying, but finds himself doing the same thing after he sleeps with her when she approaches him for comfort only for her to become emotionally attached.

Ting Ting wants to help him overcome his emotional pain, but Bin isn’t sure he can. Like Xue, his grief and guilt have made him selfish and self-involved. Reconnecting with his late girlfriend’s family, he has the urge to make some kind of confession in order to ease his burden only for her sister (Liu Tianchi) to rightly round him for the cruelty of what he’s about to do. She was just starting to move on with her life, and now Bin’s sudden chattiness seems primed to stir everything up again. His desire to ease his conscience is entirely for his own benefit whatever he might say about wanting the family to know the truth. Each conflicted by their awkward connection, neither Xue or Bin can see a way out of their suffering because they don’t believe they deserve one.

To stave off the inevitable, they continue investigating the mysteries behind Yi’s death but the answers they find turn out to be depressingly banal. While a mysterious collective of Buddhists release fish back into the rivers (perhaps not as responsible as it first sounds), the pair remain similarly trapped in a solipsistic world of suffering little realising the consequences of their (in)actions on those around them. Yet solving the case in its entirety does at least offer the opportunity of new beginnings, however far they choose to take them. A detached exploration of the entrenched effects of trauma, guilt, and regret, Summer of Changsha is not quite the film it first appears to be but an icy journey from the cold heat of summer into the unexpected warmth of winter snow as its dejected leads learn to look for new directions towards a less uncomfortable future.

Summer of Changsha was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)