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Art of the Past

Director Zhang Dalei’s debut film portrays an innocent childhood summer in the context of China’s dramatic economic transition

By Li Xing Updated Jul.16

When Zhang Dalei heard that his debut film The Summer is Gone had won the Best Feature Film award at the 53rd Golden Horse Film Awards in Taipei, Taiwan on November 26, 2016, he was caught off guard. The 35-year-old director was still chewing gum when he received the trophy; the gum stayed in his pocket during his acceptance speech. He’d already had a moment of hope earlier, for the Best New Director award he was shortlisted for. When that award went to someone else, he relaxed, thinking that was it for the night – until his name was spoken again.  

Zhang’s style, like his films, is nostalgic; he dresses in a vintage raincoat and leather boots in daily life. His movie’s posters are done in the style of the 1990s, when Chinese society transformed. The film is full of the sound of bicycle wheels, the voices of street peddlers, the chirping of birds and the eerie sound of owls hooting at night.  

“I didn’t know what sorrow was back in the 1990s, and I only remembered that I wanted to cry but tears wouldn’t flow. Those days, I found it hard to express my feelings, but nowadays is the right time,” he said.  

When Zhang started to prepare for the film in 2008, he decided to make it black and white in remembrance of the past. Zhang said what motivated him to shoot the film was a daydream he had at the home of his grandmother in August 2008. He sat in an armchair, then fell asleep and heard voices from all around in his dream from when he was a small child. After waking up, he decided to turn the dream into a film.  

He said the biggest challenge to finish the work was to always stay sober and sane and be fully aware of what he really wants to present. The day when the movie was completed, he said it was like a “tumor had been removed from my body.” Zhang says he has a one-track mind, and could think of nothing else while the movie was being made.  

Father and Son 
The plot of the film revolves around the main character Zhang Xiaolei, 12, a representative of the filmmaker himself as a child. It’s his last summer without homework before he heads to junior high school. The film is set around the real Zhang’s own neighborhood in Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. In the film, as in real life, the neighborhood is going through huge changes caused by the privatization of State-owned enterprises. The boy’s father, a filmmaker at a State-backed studio, is moving to another city in search of better job opportunities. His mother, a philosophy teacher, also worries about her son’s studies and future, racking her brains for a way to squeeze him into a reputable school.  

There are no significant conflicts in the film and the plot flows naturally. Zhang wanted to present it as an ode to the end of an era he had experienced himself. During the premiere, when the words “dedicated to the generation that birthed ours” appeared in the end of the film, Zhang glanced at his father who silently stood up and disappeared into the foyer. His father listened to the words of his son outside with tears in his eyes.  

The father in the film eventually lost his job and was a bit depressed. In real life, Zhang’s father, Zhang Jianhua, was a film editor at the Inner Mongolian Film Studio and was a laureate of the Best Film Technology award of the Huabiao Film Awards in 1995, and the Best Editing award at the 16th Golden Rooster Awards in 1996 for the film The Sorrow of Brook Steppe.  

Zhang Dalei, who was born and grew up in a courtyard home that was part of the studio, gained access to a variety of films worldwide, including many films from Hong Kong. Zhang Jianhua made a deliberate effort to give his son a chance to experience the culture he’d been shut out from as a child.  

“Our generation’s way of thinking was rigid and it was very hard for us to jump out of the old mindset,” Zhang Jianhua told NewsChina.  

Zhang Dalei conceived of the film in 2008, and spent a long time looking for investment, but was snubbed everywhere he tried. His father put together several hundred thousand yuan, the family’s entire savings, to help him make the film, which was shot in just a month using non-professional actors. After it was shot, Zhang spent two months editing it. On a visit to Inner Mongolia from Beijing, his parents insisted on seeing the film.  

During the first two hours, his parents were discussing the details of the film but after a while a silence descended. His father kept sighing and his mother was staring at him. “I knew I had disappointed them. That night, my father had to head back to Beijing and I called a cab for him without saying a word. My mother stayed a few more days and I texted them and asked them not to call me for the next two months,” Zhang told our reporter.  

Zhang shut off his mobile phone and began a dialogue with himself. He filmed himself sitting in a chair and kept asking questions. Then he filmed himself answering all these questions in hope of finding a satisfactory answer. He showed these video clips to the screenwriter, who was moved to tears. Zhang saw the silver lining and his hope rekindled.  

After that, Zhang began to communicate with his father and received a lot of advice from him. “My father is a very experienced film editor and kept reminding me not to present too much information in the film because the audience needs some space for its imagination,” Zhang said. “After the film is completed, he may have a different perspective to me. As a father, I think he does not need to worry about me anymore.”  

Nostalgia 
The film’s slogan is “Watch it like it’s the 1990s.” Zhang says that the Chinese film industry has been enriched by a growing number of film elements and genres since the end of the 1980s. But he adds that at that time the public was rarely exposed to entertainment and there was a sense of ritual when watching a film, but nowadays the feeling has gone forever.  

“That’s the way it goes. Everyone is so busy nowadays and they are occupied with too many things,” said Zhang Chen, who played the role of the father in the film.  

Since its release, the film has been critically acclaimed by both the critics and the audience – even though the entire cast are non-professional players and are Zhang’s friends. Kong Weiyi, the boy who plays the main role, also picked up the Best New Performer award at the 53rd Golden Horse Film Award.  

In the film, scenes of people bursting into songs popped up several times. Zhang recounted that when he was a child, people usually sat in the courtyard in summer and old ladies played poker. People also sang, recited poems or put on impromptu plays nearby. It was a time when people who loved art could express themselves naturally and boldly and nobody would consider it strange.  

“Art, literature and poetry were widely popular at that time but now it needs some guts to say that because it’s easy to mock. It is such a sad story,” Zhang said.  

Zhang’s next work is a sequel of the film, set in 2000, in which the protagonist has grown up and lives a wandering life. He said it is a homage to the French director Francois Truffaut, and his recurring character of Antoine Doinel, whose story spans a 20 year period over several films.  

During the dinner after the 53rd Golden Horse Film Awards, famed Hong Kong director Ann Hui who was heading the festival jury, came closer and fished out her mobile phone to take a picture with Zhang. Another revered director also told Zhang to keep calm and not to hasten his pace to churn out works quickly because it would affect his judgment.  

“It is easy for me to follow the so-called right way pointed out by others and it would make it complex when I decided to deal with things in my own way. However, I will stick to my own way and try to be simple and innocent,” he said. 
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