Premiering at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival Summer of Changsha (Liu Yu Tian) is the latest feature to be directed by Feng Zu, who also stars in this methodically dense picture that sadly struggles to craft something engaging with the material it has at hand. The film follows jaded and depressed A Bin (Feng) a Detective on the Chinese police force with his partner Lei (Chen Minghao) who are called into a grisly crime scene when a severed arm is inexplicably washed up by the current onto the riverside outside a small village. A Bin and Lei dig deeper into this investigation and interview the enigmatic and stoic Li Xue (Huang Lu) sister of the victim, who reveals absurdly accurate details to the case and a dark backstory between herself and her brother. As the investigation uncovers more and more, the relationship between detective and witness blossom — resulting in mixed feelings from both sides.
There’s a lot to unpack here in Summer of Changsha — if not too much for its own good. On the surface, director Feng Zu offers a quaint and intrigue doomed love story that takes center stage. An incredibly perplexing relationship between detective and witness that thematically offers excellent richness in engagement. However, its what’s under the surface that’s Feng dives to — in a constant barrage of unexplained allegory. The theme that is really at the forefront here is not romance but that of death. The parameters of death, particularly, such as grief, loss, and acceptance, and for the most part, the film succeeds at delving into these incredibly dark corners of the human psyche.
Summer of Changsha is almost nihilistic to a certain degree in that regard as it never oversteps the mark but at times conveys extraordinarily dark and brutal depictions of said grief that are hard to stomach. That being meant theirs an imbalance of tone and genre here — an in-flight between comedy, drama, and romance that doesn’t land successfully all that well. Individually the styles work sublime in an invigorating, entertaining fashion, but the meld is often too much to stomach. Especially considering how abstract said themes are brought onto the screen by Feng. There is a slight feeling of intellectual conviction here for the sake of it, but in the next breath there is a real emphasis on said threads that make Summer of Changsha so enjoyable at times, but as stated above, the conviction is muddled.
It reverberates and repeats these themes that don’t mainly go anywhere and only create more contextual friction between characters — granted this an allegory for the pits of a depressive person — always feeling guilty and falling further down this cyclical narrative of darkness. It’s clear with how the film indeed can’t find its footing with a suitable landing that this isn’t the intended depiction and more so a ploy to create said friction and have it linger with zero accountability or structure.
The cast list is perhaps the only element that prospers from the decision to exercise this thematic embellishment from writer Zhou Yang. The performance from Huang Lu in mainly is a beautifully composed role and stunning turn on the depiction of grief. Theirs a stoic vulnerability present throughout that aches of pain and torment. It’s stunningly captured by Huang Lu who for the most part, steals the picture with a commanding performance. Even as a secondary character she marks her screen presence well in an extraordinarily exemplary fashion and therefore thankfully doesn’t feel underused, but merely thematic exposition, which will be ultimately weighed up as chalk and cheese for the audience depending on their intrigue.
Feng, as Detective A Bin offers an intriguing role — his performance, much like the character of Li Xue deals with a dark past that wraps its hands around his present and future just as tightly — the way it’s convicted is tremendous. You can feel the weight and wear said character has had thrown at him. The wear and tear via body language and delivery of his dialogue are small, albeit tricky nuances to evoke, but successfully implements so, while also fascinatingly directing the picture at the same time. Kudos to him for such a decision to perform and direct, but after seeing his feature, it’s clear that Feng believes his talents lie in the latter, of which it’s clear even to the most undisciplined cinephile it truly lies in the former.
Summer of Changsha comes across that Feng is trying to prove to the world just how good he is at what others can do better. The thematic structure and genre are only two examples of the Chinese born director trying to gain plaudits and attention for actions that are far harder to implement in cinema than he believes. It takes a true master of the craft in the likes of Bong Joon-Ho or perhaps Quentin Tarantino to find a balance from the writing and directing standpoint. Directors/Writers who are born with such a gift— a gift not easily manufactured or bought. The result of this need of attention ultimately undoes the work set out before him, as the edit is sadly a disaster.
The film is not only crammed full of metaphor and analogies but crafted in a way that nothing can be taken out, or the resulting plot unfolds in this random sense of theoretic and no consequence. Feng and his editor, sadly have no other option aside of throwing everything into this, including the kitchen sink. The appalling edit of all comes down to a chase sequence in the films second act. Convicted in the same mentality of a student film, with the filmmakers having no idea that less is often more — going on and on to the point on exasperation, and what remains all the more disappointing is that the easier more compelling edit is right their underneath their noses all the time.
Summer of Changsha is nowhere near a point of disaster — when it wants to be a compelling piece and character study on depression it does so in a profoundly captivating manner that places you in the haunted shoes of others. Feng takes too much time trying to dazzle his contemporaries and justify his method of being abstract for artistic value and not threads that suit the film. Feng’s feature sadly, in this case, is a deeply and genuinely missed opportunity to craft an immersive character study on the layers of death and its toll on the innocent, but at least Feng can show it to all his friends for plaudits.
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