A Sunburt Summer is one of those film which is extraordinary in its storytelling and simultaneously unsettling to watch. The subject of sexual assault is not uncommon as a movie topic but the filmmakers of A Sunburnt Summer have approached it from a very different perspective. As producer of this film, Cindy Wu informs, “What we’ve achieved with this film is a unique and necessary perspective into the modern subject matter of sexual abuse and physical abuse. It’s a situation which is very real and happening, something so many can relate to. Tied in with the me-too movement, it’s a very current piece of art that’s trying to help those victims voice out their trouble and raise people’s awareness of the reality.” Critics and the film community have already weighed in with their overwhelming embrace of A Sunburnt Summer with its status as an Official Selection of the New Filmmakers Los Angeles 2020 and The Monthly Film Festival 2020 where it won “Best Actress” and the “Audience Award” as well as a nomination for “Best Director”, among numerous others. A profound element of A Sunburnt Summer is the way the filmmakers have woven a number of social issues into a pattern which illustrates the unbalanced justice in an otherwise seemingly copacetic community.
While A Sunburnt Summer begins with an all too familiar start, the twist that it takes makes it quite unique. The story begins as a teenager named Teddy (played by Nic Tom) wakes up hungover from a night of overly enthusiastic birthday celebrating. Disoriented and struggling to remember the events of the evening while his mother [Mia] helps him, bruises on Teddy’s wrists are visible and concerning. In retracing the previous evening’s festivities, Teddy realizes that his friend Sean molested him. The circumstances that surround Teddy and Mia (played by Gracie Chang of BAFTA and Writers Guild of America award nominated film The Joy Luck Club) become a maze of obstacles as they seek justice. Teddy’s friend Lilly who was also at the birthday celebration refuses to testify that she witnessed any molestation while (Jennifer Wang as) Sean’s mother Lynn is adamant that her son is incapable of such an action. Lynn is also the headmaster of the school where Mia works and informs her that there is no need to come to work as she’ll need all the time she has to prepare for the ensuing legal battle. Immigrants who have no family in the US except each other, unemployed, and unable to attain justice in the system, Mia and Teddy moves away from the city in the hopes that they can start a new and better life somewhere else.
There were numerous factors that Cindy Wu needed to carefully deal with in the creation of A Sunburnt Summer. She reveals, “The script went through about twenty revisions before arriving at its final form. We wanted to be true to our artistic statement while presenting a unique story and being respectful to the different characters. We changed genders of characters to avoid repeating themes, we explored the isolation an immigrant can feel, we presented the vacillating morality that can cause seemingly good people to make bad or selfish decisions. It’s a very frustrating and dark/real subject matter. Zicheng didn’t want to go about it with the traditional drama style, with full on emotion blast and full frontal confrontation. His style and approach was more subtle. He wanted to use minimalism and slow down the pace to give the audience time to simmer in the emotions and thoughts, focusing on the really important matters. I understood and supported his idea. This isn’t solely a tale of molestation; this is a story about helplessness. It’s not only the physical and emotional harm, but also all the invisible social constraints.”
Understandably, subject matter like this demands the actors perform scenes which require enormous vulnerability. In this regard, Cindy is adamant that keeping a tight and closed set was essential to providing the environment that created some of the film’s darkest moments. She professes, “There are so many details for a producer to oversee but when it comes to the comfortability and security of the cast and crew, there’s nothing more important. I’d like to say that everyone understands how to conduct themselves appropriately on a film set but that’s just not the case. When this has occurred on my films, I hastily correct it. Professionals need an environment that allows them to create at their best whether they are an actor, a director, camera operator, or anyone else on my set. Security is as much a topic on camera in this film as it was behind-the scenes.”
A Sunburnt Summer is extraordinary in the way it shines a light on the compounded difficulties of immigrants and their situations. It’s important not only in the way that it focuses on a moral dilemma but in the way that it presents the added hardships that many Americans never consider in the lives of immigrants. It serves the dual purpose of educating and entertaining audiences; a goal achieved through the commitment and remarkable talent of Producer Cindy Wu.