Zhang Dalei believes his real education came through life more than university and that’s why the filmmaker has tapped into his own experiences for his acclaimed debut feature The Summer is Gone.
The Inner Monglian-born director saw his coming-of-age drama pick up both the Best Feature Film and Best New Performer gongs at November’s 53rd Golden Horse Awards in Taipei – the latter for star Kong Weiyi – and its world premiere left critics and audiences raving about both the film’s substance and its style.
Zhang turned to a cast of non-professional actors for the The Summer is Gone, which is set in the 1990s and follows a young boy (Kong) across his last summer vacation before he enters middle school. Kong was chosen for the role because he was just an average kid without any acting experience, Zhang says, while other members of the cast are Zhang’s friends.
The director says he told them not to think they were “acting,” but that instead that they were actually living the lives of the characters they portray.
“People who truly live their lives, understand life,” Zhang says.
The Summer is Gone also reflects on the social and economial transformation China felt through the 1990s, as seen from a child’s perspective. “It’s a reflection of how I saw the world when I was small,” he says.
Zhang was born in Inner Mongolia, and he has emerged now as one of the leading lights of Chinese-language cinema’s post-80s generation. Influences from the New Taiwanese Cinema movement of the 1990s can be found in his debut also.
Like Taiwanese masters Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, Zhang presents people’s living conditions – and emotions – in a realistic and down-to-earth approach, with few words shared but with a creeping sense of anxiety among the adults living in an oppressive small-village atmosphere.
Zhang says he decided to shoot in black and white to enhance the dreamlike nature of his memories, and of life in the 1990s as it seems to the filmmaker today – and that the final print matches his memories by about 80%.
Zhang had been contemplating the story that would become The Summer is Gone since 2008, when he was just graduating from the St Petersburg Cinema and Television University in Russia.
However, Zhang did not start work on the film until 2015. During the seven years in between, he kept talking to himself about the story, thinking, and going through any number of drafts.
“It was interesting that as time passes by, memories fade, but the storyline becomes clearer,” he says.
In was across those seven years after graduation that Zhang received his real education – “from life,” he says.
Zhang looked to real life, too, when he started learning how to direct by hiring his services out for wedding videos – and he carried the experience on through to his acclaimed debut.
“[The wedding films] gave me opportunities to communicate with non-professional actors and actresses,” Zhang said. “And that worked again when I explained the script to Kong Weiyi. I had to be like his friend and I would squat with him. It had to feel real as Kong is only a 10-year-old kid.”
Maggie Leung attended the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival as a part of the Asian Film Awards Academy’s Journey to the Fest Student Tour