Berlinale 2021 review: Summer Blur (Shuai Han)

Shuai Han’s debut film Summer Blur is a delicate story of a thirteen-year-old girl, Guo (Tian Huang), who is forced to navigate circumstances outside her control. She is living with an aunt (Beibi Gong) who makes it clear she’s not entirely welcome. Early on, Guo witnesses a friend drowning while trying to retrieve a remote control airplane. Instead of trying to help or to find help, she runs. Her mother (also played by Beibi Gong) is absent. Guo frequently calls and texts her mother to come back for her and each time her mother gives an empty promise, each sounding more hollow than the last. All of this could have felt melodramatic or worse, but thankfully Han plays things in a minor key.

When she later sees her friend being pulled from the water and his mother grieving, Guo still remains stoic and tells no one that she was there. But her fellow student Zhao (Zhang Xinyuan) knows that she was there and uses this to wheedle his way into her life. The two of them have an odd, almost wordless relationship and it’s not entirely clear what he’s getting out of it. Inside her aunt’s house, Guo feels similarly trapped. Her aunt clearly favors her own daughter, her uncle is in the process of losing his job, and her cousin is precocious and bratty. Han’s fluid camerawork with frequent closeups highlights this, and Guo’s expressive eyes say more than her character ever does.

Later, as Guo accompanies her aunt and cousin to the latter’s audition, she accidentally stumbles upon an audition opportunity of her own. She’s asked to cry, and for the first time she’s allowed to externally show everything that she has bottled up. The casting directors are immediately impressed and ask her to come back for swimming lessons. Of course we all know how this will end and predictably, her friend’s drowning makes it impossible for her to continue.

While there are some pacing issues, especially in the first third where you sense Han struggling to find the right rhythm, Summer Blur hits its stride in the middle and becomes a slow burn, coalescing into something more tender and quietly profound. The final shot of Guo at first refusing and later accepting her cousin’s embrace is unexpectedly moving. Likewise, an earlier scene of her receiving the hug of a stranger is also affecting. It’s these later scenes that have the most power and they highlight what a promising acting talent Huang is.