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CANNES — A semi-experimental take on a harrowing Chinese reality that’s largely unknown in the West, the French low-budget film New Territories is both daring and revealing, even if the subject of French director Fabianny Deschamps’ debut is finally more interesting than the feature’s somewhat exhausting trail-and-error approach to narrative.
New Territories, named after and partially set in the northernmost area of Hong Kong, which borders Mainland China, combines and tries to juxtapose two tales, a more straightforward story involving a French businesswoman on a trip to Hong Kong to promote an unusual funeral product and that of an extremely unfortunate, female Chinese garment-factory worker, who tells her story in voice-over. Shot entirely on the fly in Hong Kong and China, this story has rough edges both intentional and unintentional in about equal measure, though its subject matter and willingness to take risks should help this Cannes ACID title get noticed on the festival circuit.
French businesswoman Eve (Eve Bitoun) travels to Hong Kong to try and open up the Hong Kong and Chinese markets for “aquamation,” an environmentally friendly variation on cremation in which the corpse is submerged in water and decomposes through alkaline hydrolysis (TV spots in the film explain the process in more detail). With an official ban on inhumation since the Cultural Revolution — also a key ingredient of Chinese director Li Ruijin‘s recent, almost fable-like Fly With the Crane — and over a billion inhabitants, China seems like the perfect growth market for a product such as this (currently mainly used for pets, though some places including Australia and seven states in the U.S. also allow it for human remains).
Deschamps shows Eve wander around town, get into some kinky games in her hotel bedroom with a fellow Frenchman (Dimitri Sani) and generally do what tourists in do in Hong Kong: Walk around wide-eyed and very much alive. Not quite the same can be said of Li Yu (Yilin Yang), who tells her harrowing story, which took her from a factory in her rural village of birth, via various cities and illegal passages, all the way to the titular frontier area between Hong Kong and China.
Though the abundant use of Li Yu’s voice-over makes her story relatively easy to follow, the footage accompanying the words doesn’t feature much of her at all, instead mostly showing the places where she transited. Clearly, this is meant to give her harrowing story a kind of spectral and haunting quality, though the text of the voice-over — which occasionally repeats phrases or backtracks to look at a part of her story again — and the images never quite synch in a way that creates a narrative throughline that continuously captives. This, in turn, makes the story too dependent on a twist that can be seen coming quite early on.
The end titles suggest that the film’s subject, directly tied to the twist, is a serious, real-life problem, though in Deschamps’ hands the subject feels to often like it is something contextual to the director’s formal experiments with footage, voice and sound.
Since there are no real dialogs to speak of, the film relies heavily on the simple presence of the actors that are on-screen, and thankfully, Bitoun is a mesmerizing presence throughout. The standout technical contribution is the shape-shifting score of Franco-German electronic musician Olaf Hund.
In Cannes Film Festival (ACID)
Production companies: Paraiso, Audimage
Cast: Eve Bitoun, Yilin Yang, Dimitri Sani
Writer-Director: Fabianny Deschamps
Producers: Nathalie Trafford, Julien Hecker
Director of photography: Tomasso Fiorilli
Music: Olaf Hund
Editor: Raphaelle Martin Holger
Sales: Caravan Pass
No rating, 90 minutes.
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