Friday, September 19, 2008

[Youth in Chinese Films After 49] One Summer With You (与你同在的夏天)

Don't Look Back In Anger

While the movie might seem poetically quiet throughout, it actually started off with quite a bang. Instantly I'd thought of the impact of such guilt, of having to live with the feeling of what ifs, whether talking a little longer, or not being hesitant, would have granted those few precious moments to have averted such an undesirable outcome. But we weren't given any luxury of time to dwell on it, where we dive straight into the mid 80s era of a small city of Guizhou, touching upon the first love story of two teenagers.

We see Li Ming Xin (Jiang Yan), a top student, bear witness to the escape of Sun Hong Wei (Xu Tao) from a prank that he played on a teacher. That prank cumulated in the dropping out of school for the latter, since he's making no headway in furthering his education, and he joins the workforce as the postman for his town, where Ming Xin's household falls into his jurisdiction. An infatuation from far now becomes a chance for him to get up close and personal.

I felt the film was about opportunities. Despite the number of hurdles you have to leap to get to your desired goal, the chance was presented, and it's all up to you to make that effort. Ming Xin is a tough nut to crack given her well executed cold shoulder treatments, which can get exasperating if not for the most determined to persevere. While we root for Hong Wei to succeed, we know very well from the onset that a relationship that is based on deceit and lies, and the holding back due to selfish reasons, will likely not succeed, because of the lost of honesty, nevermind if first loves can be all sweet and innocent, since the latter feeling gets lost in selfish acts.

That naturally takes its toil on Hong Wei, as try as he might to connect, that niggling feeling of letting someone down, never dissipates. His rationale stemmed from fear of losing the girl of his dreams again to opportunity, of a better education, and a better life, one that he would probably not have, given his stunted educational track. With the socio-historical background as shared by director Xie Dong when he introduced the film to put it in context, opportunities to get a better life and to leave the rural area for the big city, comes in the form of academic results to bring you to the doorsteps of large city universities.

While Hong wei is satisfied with his lot of being a postman of a small town and no doubt having not much of a choice to change his fate, his lady love has other ambitions, and wants to fly off and escape. Hers come from an opportunity not only to run and chase that dream of a better education, but to run away from her frustration of having to bear witness to her parent's estranged relationship, especially of her mother's infidelity. I felt that for her, relationships are probably transcient, but it took a sorry episode of her father running after a train, for her to realize at that instant, the love and fear that Hong Wei had for her, echoing his sentiments quite vividly.

Despite a love that got consummated in the rain, and it was one terribly rainy summer where scenes get drenched by, or we see the aftermath of wet grounds after a heavy downpour, there were also plenty of shots of railroad tracks, about the inevitable road ahead, where events transpire uniformly toward a fixed destination as set up by the introduction, where change is ineffective, and at most, Hong Wei's selfish act can only temporarily halt Ming Xin's flight, but the path to a fixed destination has already been set. And even if director Xie Dong had thrown in a surprise in his narrative to try and derail expectations, I felt that it still showed the lingering of love that once was.

Filled with plenty of beautiful rural landscapes brought out by the cinematography, and a selection of wonderful songs, attention to detail was never spared in this production, and I found it rather amusing at the sight where the teenagers needed to hide their alcohol in hot water flasks to escape detection. You might think they're drinking hot beverage, but it's actually cool beer. And One Summer With You does this masking of its underlying currents really well, with the innocence of first love paving the way for a look at an era of bountiful opportunities.


Left: Xie Dong; Right: Maggie Lee

Director Xie Dong was in attendance at today's screening, for a Q&A session with the audience moderated by Maggie Lee, Asia Head Reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter. What follows is an extract of the discussion, and naturally, some massive spoiler warnings should be in place:

Maggie Lee (ML): The whole atmosphere represented in the film is very vivid and detailed. Did you draw on any personal experience?
Xie Dong (XD): Definitely. The film is based on my impression of that era. There are some personal experiences in the movie, but the story is fictional. I started the creative process with a few keywords, like first love, summer, village and a list of favourite songs, together with a plot involving a letter and a postman.

Xie Dong also explained the process of getting the songs selected for the film, where it was an all-inclusive effort from crew members where they got together and voted for their favourite songs. Naturally there were rights issues to be discussed and they had a hard time trying to persuade producers and investors to put money in the film.

Q: Could you talk about the accident in the movie, was it the character's imagination, or fantasy?
XD: The original story had the accident and Ming Xin died, and during the editing process which was start-stop while getting funds to finish the film, I was still thinking about the ending, and making changes, so it was alternating from dying, and just going far away. The last scene became the wishful thinking of everyone, and instead of feeling sad about the ending, I hope to have left some space for the audience. This question comes up every time! If I had ended it with the accident scene, then the audience will leave the film with a heavy heart. So I decided to give the young man some hope by having the car move further away to the horizon, akin to a farewell to youth.

Q: Could you talk about the selection of your actors and how it was like working with them?
XD: All four leads were first time actors, and they were found on the streets in a more than two months search. The main actress was a student at a performing arts academy, while the main actor was a DJ. We had given them an immersion programme where they spent 2 months in the area as shown in the film, in order to feel the atmosphere and to know what's it like living in the 80s. I even had to take away the lead actor's mobile phone!

Xie Dong also shared that at the time when he made the movie, he was but a new director and wasn't really confident and was quite worried working with veteran and experienced technical crew. But they were excellent and they taught him a lot. Xie Dong also commented the decision to have a non linear narrative, because he wanted to reflect and stress the theme of memory where the structure of recollection is different.

Q: How did you get acclaimed director Tian Zhuangzhuang to be your producer?
XD: I guess I'm lucky since he's a great director, and an influential one as well. We likened him to be the Godfather to the 6th generation of new filmmakers as he helped a lot of filmmakers find funds to have their films made. I had sent him both of my scripts, and he liked both of them, so that's how I got to work with him as a producer of my films.

Q: What was the reaction of the current Chinese generation to your film which moves at a poetic pace?
XD: It wasn't screened commercially as there was no theatrical release for it, and only screened once at a University, where reactions were generally of interest to find out more about the era of the time. Rather this film was screened overseas at various festivals, and for some reason, many people thought I had made the film with the Korean and Japanese markets in mind! It will be screened commercially in Japan later this year.

Q: Could you elaborate on that water dunking scene?
XD: It ties in with the follow up flashback scene where Ming Xin realizes the first time where Hong Wei took notice for her, which tied in with the revenge prank he pulled off on the teacher. The other reason would be none other than the boys bullying the girls.

Xie Dong then went on to explain about how certain dynamics were achieved by having to try and craft the actor to fall for the actress in order to capture some genuine emotions, which was similar to probably what Naomi Kawase did with her Shara, and what Tatsuaki Matsue tried to capture as well in his documentary. The last scene where the guy was crying, was actually shot on the last day where it easily reflected the feelings the boy had.

The director also provided some additional social-historical context of the era, where competition was fierce for University places, otherwise it would mean a life of factory work or the other option available was to join the military. Although more choices are available today, there is still societal and parental pressure in getting a place in prestigious universities and good jobs. He also likened his working with acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, who's like family, though many a times he's like a research student, and over the years he had studied film as well as worked in various roles in the film industry.

He also shed some of his personal insights to the character of Hong Wei, that while it might be cruel to be holding back an important letter, and clearly wrong, most people do things by following their hearts without thinking of the law or consequences, and of course that action of Hong Wei was important to the film for creating dramatic tension.

Q: What's your dream and what kind of director do you hope to become in the future?
XD: I share similar sentiments with director Xiao Jiang about the difficulties in making this type of movies, where the focus these days seem to be on commercial success. I had plans to make 3 films, and have now made 2 of them around the themes of love and family. I have other projects and a genre film coming up. However I'm aware that I won't want to make a film and can't find and audience for it, and am watching the market carefully.

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