Summer of Changsa is an exercise in useless misery that feels lifeless from start to finish.
Having premiered three years ago, all the way back at the 2019 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, Zu Feng’s Summer of Changsha is now quietly seeing U.S. release through Mubi. The question of what took so long — was it censorship? Did someone… forget to release it? — is more compelling, even without specifics, than anything in Zu’s narcoleptic crime movie, a maudlin piece of fake deep psychodrama that doesn’t even have the good sense to entertain. Changsha is a film that hardly establishes the goodwill it works so hard to erode over two very long hours.
Zu stars as sad-sack detective He Bin, working one last case before his resignation from the police force is approved. He’s a psychological mess in the wake of his girlfriend’s suicide some years prior, and that, we have to assume, is getting in the way of his work. When he and his partner start working on a case involving a dismembered arm, he is put in contact with the victim’s sister, Li Xue, who claims her brother came to her in a dream and told her where his other body parts are buried. She’s right, of course, and this bit of magical realism remains important to the plot but completely unexplained. Li is, like He Bin, struggling with the specter of death even before her brother is found dead. Her child, afflicted with a rare heart condition, died in a case of accidental neglect, and Li’s life has never been the same.
After some pretty routine procedural investigation, the mystery of Li’s brother’s death is solved almost entirely without incident, leaving ample room for the rest of the film to zoom in on its characters. There aren’t any further twists or revelations to the case, no nagging detail the detectives missed and all that’s left for the film to do is twiddle its thumbs with lackluster conversation. Too few characters are fleshed out to even a small degree and the ones that do have some definition — really just the two principal players — are defined solely by their grief, so the experience of watching them work through their pain together is never more than a one-note slog. If there’s a purpose to this beyond useless misery — Zu tries to insert with a few heavy-handed metaphorical images and a tacked-on, hopeful ending — it’s ultimately a simplistic one about time healing all wounds and life going on unabated. It’s an easy message not worth the dirge to get there.
Zu Feng could have a good movie in him, even if his debut is certainly not it. He’s not an incompetent director and that he doesn’t resort to staging his film’s many dialogue scenes in basic shot-reverse-shot close-ups is admirable. But one gets the sense that he’s hardly trying as he’s made a crime movie without even an attempt at a set piece. Simply put, Summer of Changsha comes across as lifeless in its writing and directing, both characterized by bland competency that is satisfied with pretense instead of delivering anything actually meaningful or even entertaining.
You can stream Zu Feng’s Summer of Changsa on Mubi beginning on May 18.