A tender if occasionally detached tale of growing up one summer holiday…
The summer spent away with relatives is rather a familiar trope in film, but rarely are they played out with such depth and unpredictability. Here young Guan Xiaobao (Yang Liang-yu), nicknamed Bao, is unceremoniously dumped into the care of his Grandpa (Kuan Yun-loong) in Quchi, a rural community not far from Taipei, one summer vacation between junior and high school while his parents attempt to work out their divorce.
Bao is hardly enthusiastic to move away from the big city to a country village, where most of his fellow children have simpler interests – enjoying playground games, rope swings and school plays far more than his sedentary technology and cable TV. If he thought local kids would be impressed by his urban sophistication, he’d better think again, as even his beatbox impression is far outshined by a girl. And soon after his ‘hateful’ little sister Seaweed (Lin Ya-ruo) arrives.
As summer homework (the literal translation of the films original Chinese title 暑假作业) Bao keeps a journal of his vacation in which he refers to his ‘unforgettable days’, hilariously rewriting the events of the day in an upbeat manner to disguise what a miserable time he’s having. But, of course, before too long Bao begins to really engage with his fellow pupils, striking up a strong friendship with Ming-chuan (Hsieh Ming-chuan) and actually enjoying himself.
With a naturalistic directing style and truly absorbing performances from his young cast, writer/director Chang Tso-Chi’s humour deliberately distracts the sadness of Bao and his sisters relationship with their parents as much as Bao does in his journal. Their parents seem to take little interest in their children’s everyday lives; his mother does not even know her son’s shoe size, both ending up at Grandpa’s to take advantage of his karaoke machine with respective clients when the kids are out.
Chang seems to take his lead from Bao; losing himself in the holiday as much as Bao does as the film turns towards a sluggish, slightly aimless middle section, as time itself becomes ambiguous. The tragedy of the second half pushes Bao to grow up in a way no child should have to (and by implication, in a way his parents never did). His Grandpa’s painting of stones as avatars for those who can’t be with them at dinners, particularly Grandma who passed away the year before, becomes more relevant as the film progresses. At first dismissed by Bao as eccentric, he soon finds his Grandpa teaches him how deal with loss.
There’s a gentleness to how Chang deals with these themes, which avoids melodrama but remains touching nonetheless, if occasionally too detached for its own good; the emotions and cuteness never quite connect. It’s nicely, if unfussily, shot adding to the natural style Chang wants to create. Undoubtedly for Chang, whose films The Best of Times (2001) and When Love Comes (2010) were both decorated with Best Film at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards, comparisons will be made with Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984). With Hou such an inspiration on Chang’s early career, it’s hard not to imagine he had this in mind. Whether Chang’s film will overshadow its predecessor, only time will tell.