Zhang Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone is told through the perspective of Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi), a boy in the midst of the summer vacation before his first year of junior high in Inner Mongolia. Contrasted with Xiaolei’s more or less carefree days, his mother (Guo Yanyuan) and father (Zhang Chen) are embroiled in their own separate dilemmas: Xiaolei’s mother is concerned with getting her son into a respected school, while the father loses his job at a state-run film studio after the government begins to break down its properties. But as this film is seen through Xiaolei’s eyes, the current problems facing his parents are portrayed as moments within a broader, and purposely incomplete, portrait of growing up, and which take far less precedent than a transient feeling or sensation felt by Xiaolei as he whiles his summer days away.
Not much else is probed beyond the surface of the hardships that Xiaolei’s parents endure. As such, The Summer Is Gone can feel curiously ambivalent to the social or political climate of its setting; Zhang shows a reluctance to even address the complexities inherent in issues like the dismantling of the studio where Xiaolei’s father works. But if this leisurely film wants for context, that increasingly appears to be its point, as Zhang seeks to approximate how Xiaolei sees the world, and his knowledge is naturally limited on certain topics that the boy, however precious, can’t fully grasp because of his age.
Zhang places emphasis on the physical, tactile world around Xiaolei, often augmenting ambient sounds and focusing on objects instead of faces to convey a sense of how the boy registers time and place. In one striking scene, Xiaolei encounters a group of teenagers bullying a classmate and taking his belt. Zhang homes in on a lone tree rustling in the wind over which the action takes place before then observing as the bullies hand Xiaolei the belt they took from their classmate. While one of the bullies says something to Xiaolei, the words are merely an afterthought. Zhang suggests that the belt is the sign by which the boy will likely always remember this vicious act of bullying.
Zhang also recognizes how such random moments can color our dreams. A sequence where Xiaolei and a female classmate walk through a dried riverbed begins conventionally enough, but as the girl leans in to kiss Xiaolei, the film cuts to Xiaolei’s trembling hands as he wakes up from his slumber. The girl remains nothing more than a distant figure in Xiaolei’s waking life (she lives in the apartment across the way from his own), and her appearance in his dream is understood as an expression of the desires that he’s unable to fully comprehend. Even when it’s occasionally slipping imperceptibly into reverie, The Summer Is Gone is single-mindedly devoted to evoking the way a pre-adult mind compartmentalizes the world, how it lives almost carelessly in the moment, without fear or knowledge of what the future entails.