Worldfest 2018 low-budget review: Hidden Summer (Houston/China, Silver Remi winner)

Note: our friends Chen Zhongshi and Li “Esther” Guang, producer and director of the Remi-prize-winning documentary Home of Mephibosheth, have asked Helen and me to stand in for them at the Worldfest International Film Festival here in Houston. Helen has suggested that I make notes on the movies I watch, for Zhongshi and Esther’s benefit; so here we go.

I didn’t know much about Hidden Summer (夏日魔影) when I went into the theatre for its world premiere, other than there was a really big opening ceremony with lots and lots of people and photographers — and also that it was sold out, for people without nice handy VIP badges such as the one I was most undeservedly carrying around this week thanks to young Miss 陈赞 Chén Zàn, and had had to be given two extra theatres for screeing, one whole theatre being set aside just for the VIP-badged. Having beaten the rush, I ensconced myself happily in the best non-reserved seat in the VIP room. Two minutes later, madness ensued as the hordes descended upon us. Four very well-dressed Chinese ladies about my age took their seats on my left. Then the producer came in and filled up the rest of the row to my right with her entourage, leaving empty for herself the seat right next to me.

Fortunately the lady on my left was able to explain: the film had been written and produced by my right-hand seatmate Xiao Bai Tarr, a local Houston lady who is much beloved and respected in the Houston Chinese community; it was set in, and had been shot entirely in, Houston; and the cast consisted, with only a single exception, of amateur local actors drawn from the Houston Chinese community. And this was a full-length feature film, as the first shot out of the box for everybody — even the director was a dewey-cheeked youngster fresh out of college. So China of Houston, as it were, had come out in force to support the show.

It rapidly became obvious that even with an entire theatre set aside for the VIP’s, there wasn’t enough room. I knew the thing was showing again the next day, and I figured I was the person to whom being there for the premiere mattered the least; so I beckoned to one lady who was apparently nice and unquestionably disconsolate, gave her my seat, and went home.

The next night I got just as good a seat, but without the madness. There were still enough people there to fill half the seats or so, and Ms. Tarr was back as well; furthermore she stayed after the movie to answer questions and so there is more background that I will give you…but just as I didn’t get the background until I had seen the movie, you, O Gentle Reader, don’t get the background until I have reviewed it.

It was really quite good — downright astonishingly good considering that it was practically all amateur actors and that the “professionals” involved were working on their first film. It absolutely earned its Silver Remi and I would not have thought it a travesty had it taken a Gold. From time to time you could see the actors acting, as it were; but most of them were convincing enough at least for long stretches that you could stop seeing the actor and instead see the character, and the teenaged daughter, at least, sold me on her character from start to finish. If you had told me there was only one member of the Screen Actors Guild in the cast and asked me to guess which one it was, I would, after some thought, have guessed correctly (Lawrence Bucher as “David”); but if you had asked me to wager money on it I would have declined the risk. The directing was really good — the opening sequence established the Houston atmosphere really quite effectively indeed. The set design, especially in the massage parlor (more on that later), was not in the least amateur; the incidental music was effective and well-chosen except for frequent too-long stretches where its complete absence was felt not as dramatic silence, but as a simple absence of requisite incidental music.

And that brings me to the script, which presents an unexpected and quite significant problem for me by making it very difficult indeed for me to review the film objectively. I responded very positively to the script, except for a single gaping flaw (which, given the quality of the rest of the script, surprised me very much, but which was fully explained in the post-screening Q&A). But, while I do think the script was a very good script, I know that a lot of my response came from the fact that it hit a topic on which I already happened to feel strongly.

The main character, “Wendy” (徐莉 Xu Li), is a Chinese woman whose daughter Elaine (曽欣怡 Chloe Zeng) has been living with friends in America while attending high school. After her husband leaves her for another woman, Wendy comes to America on a tourist visa for a visit of some duration, but almost as soon as she lands, her husband back in China stops sending either Wendy or Elaine any money. Lonely, hurt, and rapidly going broke, Wendy wants to find another man and has to find some money — but she has no work permit. Thus she finds herself working in a respectable massage shop in Chinatown — only to be set up by a corrupt policeman for a bogus charge of prostitution. Will she be able to fight the charges? Will she be able to expose the corrupt cop for what he truly is? Will she be able to go back to China and leave behind a country that, however welcoming it may be to other immigrants, has meant nothing but unhappiness to her?

It seems to me that the script and acting and directing all manage to achieve their fundamental goal: they make us care about Wendy and about how it will all turn out. But I can’t really trust my judgment on this one, and here is where my personal experience comes in.

As soon as the movie was over, I made a beeline for the producer/scriptwriter to ask a question to which I was sure I already knew the answer: “You know Chinese women who work in the massage industry, don’t you?” The reason I was sure Ms. Tarr knows women in that industry, is that I myself know women in that industry, and everything about Ms. Tarr’s plot rang true.

As a result of falling off a house back in the early 1990’s, I have chronic back pain that has been more or less incessant for close to three decades, and one of my discoveries from my first visit to China was that regular Chinese-style massage makes a huge difference to my pain levels. So I came back to Houston all excited about Chinese massage, headed for Chinatown, and went into the first Chinese massage shop I saw…

Oh.

Turns out that “Asian massage,” in Houston, is rather more often than not a euphemism for at least a moderate degree of prostitution. I suppose most people in Houston would be like, “Uh, DUH,” but I was pretty naïve, I guess. I got cured fast, though.

Well, I eventually found a Chinese masseuse who actually did massage. She had been a fully qualified cupping / hot stone / acupuncture / massage therapy medical practicioner in China, where it is karaoke bars, not massage parlors, that the unwary and naïve wander into and come out with very surprised looks on their faces. For a year she kept me walking more or less pain-free. And then she just quit — because she was so tired of having most of her male customers ask her for sexual services. She opened a grocery store instead and packed away the massage table and the hot stones.

So I had to find another respectable masseuse. After a couple of months, I got one, whom I have relied on ever since. Sally (for that is her English name) is very good at her job and not once has she ever attempted to, shall we say, upsell the services. And after I had been her customer for a little while, something happened that I thought was very funny — only, her reaction when I started laughing made it clear that she didn’t think it was funny at all, and later, as she came to trust me and told me a little bit more about how some policemen often treat Chinese masseuses even when they are not prostitutes, I came to realize…no, no, it’s not funny. I told some of that story here and won’t repeat it. One thing I left out, though, is that on at least one occasion a “customer” asked up front for “full service,” and when Sally said, “I don’t do that,” he pulled out a badge and said, “Either you **** me or else I’ll arrest you and say you agreed to.” Fortunately Sally stood her ground and he left — but then Sally speaks pretty good English and is fully licensed and green-carded. In a city where the majority of Chinese masseuses speak little or no English — and many of them actually are prostitutes — what percentage of the time do you think that tactic fails? And when it succeeds, how often do you think the cop even has enough of a shred of decency to at least pay the fee?

I am a libertarian by temperament and nothing enrages me more than when people with government authority abuse that authority, especially when they prey on the truly vulnerable. So as soon as I realized where the plot of Hidden Summer was heading, I was all in…but I suspect I would have been all in even if the script was complete crap, because it hit one of my big red buttons.

So I have very little idea of whether or not to recommend this film to you. I cared about the characters and was emotionally involved in their fate, but I don’t know whether you would be. It won a Silver Remi; so I think it’s probably worth your gambling a couple of hours of your time. Still I have to say that’s more the festival jury’s recommendation than it is mine.

Before I go, let me explain the one huge gap in the plot. Wendy and her lawyer and her private detective come up with a strategy to try to defend her innocence and take down the dirty cop. We cut to three cops in an extraordinarily badly acted scene, of quite different quality than the rest of the film. And then we instantly cut to “Four months later,” as Wendy says, “Now that…” and tells the audience the outcome of the case. And my reaction was, “Hey, wait — I wanted to see that part!”

But Ms. Tarr explained, after the movie, that the original script had an extra fifteen minutes of Wendy Versus Dirty Cop, showing exactly what I was wanting to see — but since part of it took place in a Thai massage parlor that actually was a brothel, and the “masseuses” in said massage parlor were dressed for the part, the Chinese distribution company who had bought the rights to the film, said, “Hey, that’s pornography!” And they made her take it out.

“Couldn’t you have an American cut that leaves it in and a Chinese cut that takes it out?” I asked.

“No, they wouldn’t let me,” was the answer.

And that, I would bet good money, is why Hidden Summer won a Silver, rather than a Gold, Remi award.

A final human-interest note: Ms. Tarr financed this movie herself, by selling her small business (she owned a successful restaurant in Katy) and investing all the proceeds in the movie. I asked her why, and this, as best as I can remember, was her answer:

“Well, I had spent three years writing that script, and I couldn’t stand not to see it become a movie, and this was the only way I could do it.”

I hope she makes all her investment back. In my opinion she deserves it.

Prior Worldfest 2018 posts:

I mislead some nice Chinese girls

Worldfest low-budget review: Blaze (USA)

Worldfest low-budget review: Nine to Nirvana (China, Best Foreign Film co-winner and I will tell you in advance that this means the jury and I are very far from being on the same page about what makes a movie good or bad)

Congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光…

General observation on the Chinese movies at Worldfest

Worldfest low-budget review: Ayla, the Daughter of War (Turkey, screened but not eligible for an award)

Again, congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光… Platinum Remi!

Worldfest low-budget review: Fiddlin’ (USA, Grand Remi winner I think)

Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

Worldfest low-budget review: Grass Ring (China, Gold Remi winner, featuring Ma Liang, winner of the festival’s Best Supporting Actor award)

Worldfest low-budget review: Teacher in the Deep Mountains (China, Platinum Remi winner I think)

Worldfest low-budget review: A Pretty Little Fishing Village (China, Gold Remi winner)

Worldfest low-budget review: Santa Stole Our Dog (USA…where else?)

Worldfest low-budget review: Home of Mephibosheth (China, Platinum Remi winner)

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