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In the Heat of the Sun Film Analysis

Updated on June 21, 2012

In the Heat of the Sun features surreal elements which demonstrate the idea that memory is reconstructed based on subjective selectivity. Incidentally in this particular film, these cinematic techniques also work to disregard official discourse and support an alternative history for the cultural revolution period. The inevitably flawed process of history writing is expressed in the film through Ma Xiaojun’s imaginative reconstruction of his adolescent years during the cultural revolution. Periodically reminding the audience of his ability to recall the past accurately, and the ultimate infeasibility for anyone to do so, the grown narrator directly addresses the audience and the central message of the film is repeatedly emphasized. The flexibility, and therefore unreliability in history-writing is expressed in various scenes that utilize surreal techniques and stylistic cinematography. From tossing the schoolbag as a young boy to stabbing Mi Lan’s boyfriend as a rebellious, angst-ridden teenager, In the Heat of the Sun uses surrealism extensively in order to convey to the audience the vulnerability of memories. This is presented most evidently in the romantic and innocent portrayal of Mi Lan and Ma Xiaojun’s relationship at its initiation, as well as the poetic yet nightmarish swimming pool scene which shows Ma Xiaojun struggling and failing to get out of the water. While the audience understand eventually that both situations should not be taken literally, each scene differs in its degree of credibility and surrealism. In both cases, the audience is presented with a dilemma: If history is written by men in retrospect, and men are incapable of remembering the past with total objectivity, then can any account of history be absolutely believable? Should an objective account be attempted and then presented to the public? The answer In the Heat of the Sun suggests, seems to be no.

In the first scene, nostalgic and sentimental film score accompanies the young couple’s youthful interaction in the form of a montage while the narrator explains to the audience his thoughts on what really took place during that period. He states with frustration and incredulity, “But wait... My memory plays tricks. I’ve confused reality and dreams. Maybe she never fell asleep in front of me. She may never have stared at me like that. Heavens! If not, why is her gaze and her sleeping figure so deeply etched in my brain?” Ma Xiaojun and Mi Lan are bathed in a flood of soft sunlight, shadows dance on the walls, and a dreamlike atmosphere is created. In cinematographic terms, various shot sizes are used in this scene to fortify established characteristics of the two. For example, Mi Lan’s beauty as perceived by Ma Xiaojun is showcased with close-up shots of her face, as well as medium shots of her body. Ma Xiaojun’s fondness and lust for Mi Lan can be seen through close-up shots of his uncontrollable laughter as well as medium shots of him studying and admiring Mi Lan from a distance. Finally, long shots are used to show the two dancing, which adequately display their physical movements and growing intimacy. Also, soft lighting dominates the scene which obscures their movement. Dissolve is used to create smooth transitions from one image to another. Both techniques provide additional fantastic and dreamy qualities to the scene. As music swells and reaches a climax, the audience experiences simultaneously the passions of first love through the visual presentation and the grown Ma Xiaojun’s bitterness towards his rose tainted memories through his verbal narration. The romanticized sequences featuring two young people’s affectionate and playful relationship first appear genuine and sweetly nostalgic. It is only after the narrator confesses that he is unsure any of his memory involving Mi Lan is trustworthy that the audience realizes that what they witnessed initially was perhaps nothing but Ma Xiaojun’s fantasy.

On the other hand, the swimming pool scene which occurs at the end of the film is unapologetically dreamlike and surreal. At this point however, the audience has learned to accept Ma Xiaojun’s visual narration as mostly adolescent fantasy, sincere nostalgia for a fabricated past. Therefore, it is not difficult for the audience to identify the cinematography of this scene as being intentionally surreal and strategically artistic. The swimming pool acts as a place of revelation in the film. The inner feelings of isolation and rejection Ma Xiaojun experiences are shown metaphorically and in first person perspective which give the audience a chance to connect with Ma Xiaojun on a more personal level. As Ma Xiaojun is repeatedly pushed back into the water, the audience is compelled to feel suffocated physically which translates into Ma Xiaojun’s feelings of complete alienation and rejection each time he resurfaces. The use of multiple camera angles and repetitious action shots first create a sense of danger and suffocation. Low-angle shots are used to emphasize feelings of powerlessness as well as the dominance of his oppressors. Empty shots of the pool water, accompanied by dramatic music, further demonstrate Ma Xiaojun’s loneliness. As Ma Xiaojun realizes he is entirely on his own and stops seeking help from his “friends”, prolonged shots of Ma Xiaojun floating alone are shown in order to provide insight to his emotional turmoil. The same film score is present in this scene which indicates that this is Ma Xiaojun’s romantic reflection and reconfiguration of the aftermath following his unpleasant final interaction with Mi Lan.

It is shown in both scenes, dominant emotions, positive or negative, overpower reality. The abandonment of reality causes the audience to question the authenticity and value in official history. It is apparent that Ma Xiaojun chooses to remember the past the way he most wishes it had happened and not how it actually happened. At the same time, he also seems to remember and recreate traumatic events vividly and perhaps, with bias and exaggeration. As Ma Xiaojun repeatedly stresses the impossibility to be totally sincere in narrating the past, history of the Cultural Revolution seems to be included in his generalization. As demonstrated by Ma Xiaojun’s narrative, the official discourse provided by the Communist party during the Cultural Revolution years appears to be undermined by the film. The fact that In the Heat of the Sun ’s romanticized and universal portrayal of youth takes place during such a significant historical time frame seems to act as an ironic commentary on authoritarian history. The film disregards and mocks the effort of the Maoist party to provide objective testimony when it is utterly impossible to do so. As a form of personal reflection, official as well as private history appear to not only be untrustworthy, but inconsequential in the search for objective answers regarding the past.


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