Writer-director Han Shuai’s Summer Blur, the winner of the Grand Prix for Best Film in the Kplus competition at the 2021 Berlinale, is a mesmerising take on film noir. Its codes and conventions are used to explore the feeling of the quiet terror a young girl feels while being faced with her own identity as a woman in the society. She enters the realm of romantic attraction and emotional entanglements with dread and uncertainty, during a summer spent at her aunt’s place devoid of her mother’s comforting presence and attention. The feeling of isolation and entrapment only intensifies as an unfortunate accident leads to a play of manipulation and sabotage. Deeply sunken in the hot and humid summer air in Wuhan, the spiral of psychological games begins.
Relistening to Han Shuai’s answers while transcribing the interview made me recall the late 1920s Chinese writer Ding Ling saying: “I myself am a woman”. The straightforward refusal to explain or justify one’s own existence is the attitude that the filmmaker undoubtably shares. I spoke with Han Shuai on Wechat in early March just after the Berlinale. The space of our home offices, hers in Beijing, mine in Taipei, turned out to be linked regardless of the geographical distance. When Han Shuai took out her recently published monograph on Lou Ye from the bookshelf behind her, I smiled and turned my head to the poster of Suzhou River hanging above my bed. Cinephilia connects people in many mysterious ways.
Summer Blur is your debut film, it feels very much in dialogue with film history and genre conventions. I was wondering how you got interested in cinema and filmmaking?
When I was a teenager in the 2000s Hong Kong films were very popular in the Mainland. There were a lot of VCD shops, which rented older and newer titles. Johnnie To’s films left a big impression on me, but I didn’t fully understand them at that time. When I was about to go to university, I started reading film magazines such as Movie View 《看电影》. Like many other students, I would buy older issues of film magazines because they were cheaper. The articles and reviews were really well written, and they fed my growing cinephilia. I originally studied chemistry but later, because of my increasing interest in film, I decided to apply to the Central Academy of Drama. I have been studying in this college for 10 years straight and didn’t engage in filmmaking full time until I graduated with a PhD in 2018. Cinema might have been a hobby at the beginning. It took me a lot more study time than other directors to feel I was ready to start making my own films.
As a current PhD student, I am dying to ask what was the topic of your thesis?
In my doctoral dissertation I discussed films directed by Lou Ye. No one in the Mainland has written about his works extensively yet, so the book based on the thesis was just published last year. I also interviewed director Lou Ye, he is very nice.
That is a coincidence! I wrote about Lou Ye in my BA thesis, I love his early films. In Summer Blur there is also this very strong sense of fear and uncertainty about the nature of relationships between people, especially on the basis of gender, a bit like in Lou Ye’s works. What were your inspirations while preparing the film?
Originally the protagonist of this script was Zhao You, the male classmate of Yang Guo, a girl in her early teens who eventually became the main character in Summer Blur. The concept first appeared when I was writing a composition plot as an assignment for drama class back in college. The idea came back to me when I decided to start working on my first feature, but I realised that as the time passed, I was more interested in the mentality of girls. The point of departure was that insecurity is a shared feeling that women often encounter during the whole process of growing up. Sometimes women in romantic relationships with men feel a little controlled and not completely free. In the film the remote-controlled airplane is a sign of this unhealthy dynamic. What was very clear from the start was that what I wanted to do was a woman’s film, not a children’s movie. I chose the city of Wuhan because it is often referred to as Jiangcheng in Chinese: a city of rivers. The point of departure in Summer Blur is a drowning accident, which is quite common there every year. Another reason for choosing the city is that when I was young, I read a lot of novels by writers from Wuhan. The female characters they depicted in their fiction were very strong. This image influenced my impression of Wuhan women. Even if I wrote about a girl, I wanted her to have that very inner power. These few points are some of the origins of the Summer Blur script.
The relationship between the heroine Yang Guo and her mother and aunt is very interesting. The two of them can’t give this girl a sense of security, they even repel her. Why did you choose the same actress to play these two roles?
They are sisters and when I was writing the script, I placed them opposite each other as two very different women, a bit like two sides of a coin. The aunt has more features traditionally considered masculine: she is the main breadwinner in the family and seems to be a lot stronger than her husband, who spends most of his time lying in bed. In the script, Yang Guo’s mother is marked with stereotypically feminine characteristics: she has long hair, pays attention to appearance, she lives off men. So, I think the sisters symbolise two extremes. I felt if the same person acted in both roles – the mother who is dear and missed but far away and the mother who is in physical proximity but emotionally rough and indifferent – it would highlight Yang Guo’s feelings and state of mind. Yang Guo observes the two women and tries to become herself, explore and define her own identity as a woman. What kind of person she will become remains a question mark. She can become very rough and set herself against all men, she can also learn to follow gender stereotypes about femininity and strategically use the position of weakness in patriarchal society to achieve her goals. In fact in the film, she has learned methods such as pretending to be hurt to get what she wants. It is a very indirect and soft way of exerting pressure and exercising one’s agency. Yang Guo is searching for what kind of woman she wants to be, and her biological mother and aunt are the main points of reference, models she can imitate. But in the end, the most important mother figure turns out to be the mother of her deceased friend. When she hugged Yang Guo, I think the girl realised that deciding what kind of woman to be isn’t the crux of the matter. The ability to love is the most important.
We are accustomed to using binary structures to understand the world, which seems to be an automated response of our cognition. It is difficult to break away from this habit because it is so instinctive.
I kept thinking that when evaluating women, there is always an adjective attached such as: “I’m a girl, so I have to do better than boys” or “I’m a girl, so I’m fragile and beautiful.” I think all these are definitions forced upon us. In fact, you only need to say: “I am a woman.” Period. No need to explain yourself and your existence.
I feel that the role of Yang Guo is a big challenge because the camera follows her very closely, often focusing on her face and emotional expression. It is Huang Tian’s debut as an actress, how did she prepare to play this role? How did you two meet?
We had selected about 2,000 children in the school for the casting audition. My executive producer spotted Yang Guo while she was sitting in class and sent me a video of her. We felt she was different from other kids and the closest fit to Yang Guo’s character because she seemed a bit like a small animal. There was a sense of recklessness, brunt and strong vitality about her. We chose her among all the selected candidates and at the time I thought she was perfect for the role. But the problem was that originally she had been training to be a dancer. She had very long hair, her movements – even so basic like sitting and standing – were very much like that of a lady which didn’t fit Yang Guo’s character at all, so I hoped that she could alter some basic habits. Huang Tian prepared for three weeks for the role and throughout this time she lived with the core of the film crew. Yang Guo is quite independent and self-sufficient, so Huang Tian had to learn to tidy up and do things around the house she didn’t need to do at her parents’ place. Then she had to try to be a bit boyish, more neutral and not so ladylike in her daily habits. We cut her hair shorter to shoulder length. Then one of the assistant directors asked her to write a diary while assuming Yang Guo’s identity to make her slowly become that girl. Huang Tian had no acting experience before the shoot and I think at times she is a bit stiff and unnatural in front of the camera. What I usually did in the most intense scenes was to experience the emotions with her, I would scream if she was to scream or if she had to cry, I would cry with her. In fact, it is a very primitive method, but it helped her to believe in the moment and grasp the feeling. As an actress, she can handle extreme scenes and emotions very well but when she has to be calm and subtle, she needs a lot of time to get into the mood because she gets overly uptight. So, in the end we also modified a lot in the editing room to try to choose her best performances. My shooting method is relatively free, and I shot a lot of footage, so we were able to pick the best pieces from the recorded material.
It seems that during the filming process Huang Tian had to majorly reprogram herself to fit the character. Programming of the cinematic world starts from acting all the way to sets and costumes. When watching Summer Blur, I thought that the world presented in the film was not contemporary. If I hadn’t seen the iPhone, I would have assumed that the story is set in the ‘90s. Maybe my impression is wrong, but if there is a bit of truth, I am curious why you chose to design the cinematic world in such a way?
The look of the film resembles the ‘90s not just because of the costumes and props. Another reason is that the environment in which the film is set is out of time. The shooting location we chose belongs to the area in Wuhan which is quite detached from the rest of the city. It is a district dominated by the steel plant. Almost every small community over there survives from its infrastructure, people live mostly in the dormitories of the steel company and work at the plant. This is a very special place in Wuhan, an area forgotten by modernisation and a trip back to the heavy industrial past. Its development is far behind other districts in Wuhan. The dorm where Yang Guo lives with her aunt, uncle and niece is cramped and dilapidated. When the factory announces a massive layoff, we see the eclipse of this world.1 What we see now in Wuhan is an image of a representative provincial capital, so this remnant of the past made a big impression on me. With regard to costumes, we wanted Yang Guo to dress very carefree and casual because she doesn’t have a mother by her side who would suggest to her how to dress up. We went to the very popular night market in Wuhan, where there are many stalls selling clothes. We were searching for a popular local aesthetic and what is in fashion nowadays in Wuhan turned out to be a lot like ‘90s style. I especially liked the black-collared polo shirt that Yang Guo eventually wore in the first segment of the film, because it is unisex. Then we thought that Huang Tian’s hair must be shoulder-length because when I chose her for the role, I thought she looked very similar to Charlotte Gainsbourg when she was in her early teens playing the main role in An Impudent Girl (L’Effrontée, Claude Miller, 1985). I suppose it is the shape of their lips that made me think they look alike. I used the look of Gainsbourg from that film as a point of reference for creating Yang Guo’s image.
Comparing them now, they do look alike！Maybe it is a certain charisma they have in common. I recently watched Kung Fu Master (Agnès Varda, 1988) and in this film Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character also struggled with a difficult relationship with her mother. I am curious to know, besides Lou Ye, are there other filmmakers that you particularly admire?
I think the filmmaker that I feel is very close and dear to me must be Hou Hsiao-hsien, it was his films that brought me a sort of enlightenment with regard to cinema. I think a lot of Asian directors born in the 1980s and 1990s would say the same. The whole generation of filmmakers is influenced by him because he is someone we can relate to. Watching his movies, I feel the emotional link that is absolutely different from the one I can have with Western movies. Hou Hsiao-hsien is the filmmaker I respect and admire the most up until today. But I wouldn’t make a movie that is similar to his when it comes to topic and style. When I was in school, I researched Jean-Pierre Melville’s work which was the topic of my undergraduate degree thesis. In graduate school I studied Michael Haneke’s films, then I focused on Lou Ye during my PhD In the meantime, I also wrote about Claude Chabrol’s work. I think their films pay attention to suspense and tension. In other words, although Chabrol, Haneke and Melville’s aren’t the most classic noir films, they are actually deeply influenced by the genre and Alfred Hitchcock’s work. Because of my interest in film noir, I also introduced elements of suspense to Summer Blur, the tension between the image and the sound, the feeling of threat and mistrust in relations between people. The difference is it is noir set in a children’s world. I only now understand the reason why I chose a remote-controlled airplane that it is very similar to the motifs in Hitchcock’s classics like The Birds or in North by Northwest. For women, the locus of horror is in the house a bit like for men fear is caused by the unknown wilderness outdoors. For women, the sense of fear may be a small detail at home or close by which will make you very uneasy. I think these motifs might have had an influence on Summer Blur.
Seeing Yang Guo running from the toy airplane did make me think of Gregory Peck dodging the plane in North by Northwest. Summer Blur is still touring the film festival circuit. What are your plans for the future? Do you have any themes or topics that you want to explore through filmmaking?
I think the preparation and production of Summer Blur took a long time, so I haven’t completely escaped its influence yet. I have a feeling that I can’t be hasty. I don’t have a clear direction or an idea for my next film and I don’t want to feel that I have to shoot it right after the debut. I think the director’s second work is always the hardest and I must have something that I have to say through filmmaking. For example, if, as a woman, my life will change and I will acquire some new understanding, it will inspire me to write about it. I have a feeling that I will keep making films about women at different stages of life: teens, adults, middle-aged, and their different romantic relationships. People get to know themselves all throughout their lives. In the case of women, this process of acquiring self-awareness is very important, and it is something I might always be interested in.
I guess new directors will face a lot of unhealthy pressure when their debuts catch the attention of film critics, film programmers and cinephiles who will suddenly have a lot of expectations.
It may have something to do with gender, but I think Summer Blur didn’t completely change my life and family situation. And I’m not that young, I didn’t make films when I was in my twenties, so I’m not so anxious. I hope I make a film for the sake of speaking, not speaking for the sake of making a film.
- In 1994 China became a global leader in production of iron and steel, but since the 2000s and China’s accession to the WTO there has been a gradual shift towards light industry. Due to lowered international demand for steel in the mid-2010s, plants underwent large-scale closures and redundancies. ↩