The Obscure

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Hong Kong International Film Festival

HONG KONG -- What happens when a dozen prominent writers gather in a three-star hotel for a conference on poetry? Not much in the way of action, but a lot of deep thoughts are bandied about.

Cinematographer-turned-director Lu Yue makes his feature debut with "The Obscure," an oddly compelling but not wholly successful docudrama about poetics. The film is unlikely to see any sort of life beyond the festival circuit, and a DVD release seems to be a long shot as well.

"Obscure" had a complicated production history that spanned several years. It was completed, rejected by mainland censors, shelved, then inexplicably approved for release four years after the first rejection. It's difficult to imagine what would have so upset Beijing that it felt the need to quash the film. Politics rarely enters into any of the discussions.

"Obscure" is two films forced into one. The first is the documentary in which various writers theorize on the nature of poetry, what makes a poet, whether poetry is found or created, being an artist and so forth. The writers are eloquent, vivid personalities with strong opinions, but the conversations remain civil and respectful.

While they talk (poetically, of course) and smoke, they're served tea by one of the conference organizers, Chen (Wang Tong), who later runs into an old boyfriend. This part of the film -- about Chen's uneasy reunion with businessman Zhao (Wang Zhiwen) -- is fiction. Chen is stunned to see Zhao in the hotel lobby, and we find out why when they spend a sometimes-awkward day together.

Lu and producer/co-writer Liu Yiwei don't itemize what transpired between the two, but both actors pause, glance and stumble over their words in such a believable way that they make a more detailed backstory irrelevant. Wang Tong's turn as an unhappy mother and Wang Zhiwen's as a man resigned to things being "just the way they are" are both subtle and moving. These two characters deserve a film of their own.

The most prominent writers involved in the conference (credited as participants) include Wang Shuo and Mian Mian. Wang is a cultural icon in China and might be familiar to Western audiences as a screenwriter ("Dreams May Come," "Samsara"). Mian had one of her earliest novels, "We Are Panic," banned before it was adapted into Andrew Cheng's infuriatingly self-indulgent "Shanghai Panic." Others of note in China include A Cheng, Ma Yuan and Yu Hua, who wrote Zhang Yimou's "To Live."

As a cinematographer, director Lu worked on some of China's most lushly photographed films ("Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl," "To Live," "Shanghai Triad"). So the lack of style here is surprising. Wang Tianlin's still camera at the conference is understandable: It amounts to talking heads-style recording.

But by linking the artistic discourse with the lovers' platonic reunion, Yu is suggesting that life is inherently poetic. The images that go with Chen and Zhao's daylong adventure most definitely are not. That said, the drab gray sky, barren streets and overwhelming silence (there is no score) are perfect mirrors of the nonspecific malaise that afflicts the couple, Chen in particular.

Lu saves the best bit for the concluding frames, when each of the writers gets a last word in on what they think is going to come of the couple. It's here that each finally speaks the least poetic but most astute words. More importantly, it begs the question of whether they knew that the tea server was an actress. It's that kind of grace note that makes "Obscure" a fuzzy experiment instead of a unified whole.

THE OBSCURE
An MK 47 production
Credits:
Director: Lu Yue
Screenwriters: Lu Yue, Liu Yiwei
Producer: Liu Yiwei
Executive producer: Hao Jianguo
Director of Photography: Wang Tianlin
Production Designer: Wang Dongfeng
Editor: Zhai Ru
Cast:
Chen: Wang Tong
Zhao: Wang Zhiwen
Themselves: Fang Fang, Zhao Mei, A Cheng, Xu Xing, Xu Lan, Ding Tian, Mian Mian, Wang Shuo, Yu Hua, Ma Yuan, Lin Bai, Chen Cun, Qu Hong
Running time -- 86 minutes
No MPAA rating
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