Chinese film “Summer is the Coldest Season” is a dry but interesting coming-of-age drama about one adolescent girl struggling with her anger and grief. As she deliberately gets herself involved with a person responsible for that, the movie calmly and sensitively depicts her confusion and conflict, and we come to have more empathy and understanding on her as we get to know more of what has been troubling and tormenting her.
At first, the movie establishes how things have been hard and difficult for its young heroine’s daily life. During the opening scene, Li Jiahe (Deng Enxi) is commended by her classroom teacher for writing a very good essay based on what she saw from an abattoir for which her father works, but this smart and sensitive girl is often ostracized by many of her classmates just because of her father’s occupation, and we soon see her fighting against that via one defiant act.
Her father is soon brought to the school for that, but there is nothing he can do except keeping saying that he is sorry and will do whatever is necessary for her, and Li Jiahe is not so pleased about that because, in her view, her father is nothing but a pathetic alcoholic loser. There was a time when he was a promising wrestling player, but he has been stuck in his menial jobs for years because he did not get college education, and that often drives him more to his alcoholism.
In case of her mother, she died due to some unfortunate incident a few years ago, and the memories of her often haunt Li Jiahe’s mind as reflected by a series of frequent flashback scenes in the film. Although life was not that good for her and her family, Li Jiahe’s mother never lost her kindness and compassion while always loving her dear daughter and her loving husband, and it goes without saying that she was the light of life for both of them before her death.
As missing her mother a lot again, Li Jiahe goes to a local amusement park where she and her mother went once, and that is where she comes across someone unexpected. That person in question is an older boy named Yu Lei (Li Gan), and he turns out to be the one who was responsible for her mother’s death. After watching him working at a local garage, Li Jiahe goes to a lawyer who handled the case in her family’s behalf at that time, and she belatedly comes to learn that Yu Lei was released much earlier than expected just because of his probation. Quite upset about this, she innocently tries to find any possible legal way to send Yu Lei back to a correctional facility, but, of course, there is nothing she can do because the case is officially closed at present.
Still feeling angry at Yu Lei, Li Jiahe also cannot help but become curious about who Yu Lei is, so she starts to watch on him without his knowledge. When he subsequently hangs around with a bunch of friends who are apparently not so good for him, Li Jiahe follows them without hesitation, and it does not take much for her to get involved with them, though it turns out that this shy introverted girl is not very good at having any fun with them.
Anyway, it looks like that Yu Lei has some interest in getting know Li Jiahe more. At one point later in the story, he invites her to his current staying place, and she comes to learn a bit more about him and his life. While never talking about how he ended up in that correctional facility, he talks to her about how he has usually been neglected by his absent parents, and she feels more conflicted as watching him earnestly hoping to have a new start for his life.
As its heroine swings back and forth between resentment and sympathy on her new friend, the screenplay by first-time director Zhou Sun steadily builds up its narrative momentum while occasionally adding more details to not only Li Jiahe and Li Gan but also several other characters in the story. We get to know more of how much Li Jiahe’s father tries to make things better for himself as well as his daughter despite his continuing despair and frustration, and the movie also provides us some lightweight moments through Li Jiahe’s occasional meetings with her best friend, who has incidentally worked at a local nail art shop instead of going to her school. In case of a certain supporting character briefly appearing later in the story, his scene is balanced well between humor and poignancy, and that gives us some understanding on Li Jiahe’s last minute decision around the end of the story.
Deng Enxi carries the film well with her quiet but strong performance, which speaks volumes during several key scenes in the film where her character is silently coping with conflicting emotions behind her phlegmatic façade. As her counterpoint, Li Gan is effective in his low-key acting while doing more than looking elusive and handsome, and Wu Guohua is also fine as Li Jiahe’s well-meaning but incompetent father.
Overall, “Summer Is the Coldest Season” is engaging enough to hold our attention thanks to its thoughtful storytelling and several good performances. Although the finale becomes a little too melodramatic compared to what has been carefully built up during the rest of the film, that is just a small weak point in my humble opinion, and Zhou made an admirable feature film debut here. She and Deng are new talents of Chinese cinema to watch, and I must say that I have some expectation on whatever they will respectively do next in the future.