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The Pluto Moment begins with a once-famous art house director visiting his film-star wife on the shoot of an actioner, high atop a Shanghai skyscraper. The haughty crew doesn’t recognize him, and the has-been is banished to a corner of the set, where he stews for a while before insulting the brash director, who wanders over for a smoke, as a fat wreck. In the next shot, he’s in a taxi, nursing a bloodied, bandaged head.
Admittedly, director Zhang Ming isn’t married to an A-lister and has never been beaten to a pulp on a film set. But this opening scene symbolically depicts the veteran auteur’s struggle. He was among the first of the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese directors to attain success on the festival circuit — his 1996 debut, In Expectation, bowed in Berlin, and won awards in Vancouver and Busan. But Zhang has spent the past decade making government-commissioned “main melody” (patriotic propaganda) films, while his peers crossed over to China’s soaring commercial mainstream.
Marking his return to the festival circuit with a bow in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, The Pluto Moment is inspired by Zhang’s real-life preparations for a film revolving around traditional funeral music in rural southwestern China. Having brought the project to pitching markets at Rotterdam and Busan in 2005, he developed a screenplay based on his field research but failed to convince financiers to invest.
Traces of these lost years are to be found throughout Pluto Moment, with its filmmaker protagonist forced to confront the indifference and humiliation meted out by puffed-up moneymen and petty officials. But as one of the more cerebral artists of his generation (he majored in fine arts before continuing his studies at the Beijing Film Academy, where he has taught directing for two decades), Zhang has much more to offer here than just a cathartic movie industry satire.
With its long takes of characters’ quest for spirituality, and its lush depictions of rustic landscapes and traditions, Pluto Moment is an intriguingly beautiful mix of sensation and Zen. As he did in Weekend Plot (2001) and Before Born (2006), Zhang mines Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, particularly L’Avventura, for ideas on how to depict modern alienation onscreen.
Also drawing inspiration from Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain, Pluto Moment is a road movie in which a group of disenchanted urbanites roam bucolic forests and rustic villages to search for meaning in their lives.
The protagonist is filmmaker Wang Zhun (Wang Xuebing), who is convinced that the completion of his screenplay hinges on whether he will be able to listen to an authentic live performance of a traditional ode to the dead. His producer, Ding Hongmin (Liu Dan), keeps tabs on him while she solicits aid from local businessmen and cadres. With them are two young tag-alongs: Bai Jinbo (Yi Daqian), an actor hoping for both a role in Wang’s next film and a place in Ding’s heart, and Du Chun (Li Xinran), a camerawoman who has a crush on Wang. The pack is completed by old Luo (Yi Ping), a local guide who’s on hand to help and monitor these city slickers.
During the first half of the journey, relationships play out very much as expected. Wang is the brooding intellectual, troubled by a creative impasse. Ding is the brawn to Wang’s brain, organizing and socializing on the artist’s behalf. Bai, perhaps the most underwritten of the lot, shuffles around without doing much. Du fiddles with her phone, frowns at the Spartan accommodations on offer and despairs of not being able to drink coffee during the journey. Overseeing the group, Luo makes his menacing presence felt by asking Du to delete footage and photos that show the villages in a bad light.
As they go further into the wild and come upon a river they can cross only on foot, their real personalities emerge. Wang’s narcissism rears up as he tries to reassure himself of his vitality and vigor, making fumbling advances at young Du. No longer the simple, starstruck devotee she was at the beginning of the journey, and turned off by Wang’s egoism and shallowness, Du reveals a much more learned and independent side than her appearance might suggest. With her knowledge of literature, philosophy and life, she distances herself from her mentor.
Her complexity mirrors that of the old guide Luo, who gradually evolves from mere government lackey into a perceptive observer of the shifting emotions and dynamics within the group. He is also a font of sage wisdom for anyone who cares to listen. In one of the film’s most poetic sequences, he dozes off and dreams of his four troubled charges wandering around an abandoned farmhouse.
Pluto Moment thrives on this mix of earthly melodrama and ethereal imagery. With the help of DP Li Jinyang, Zhang evokes the eerie serenity of China’s provincial outback through extended sequence shots of the characters’ trek across the wilderness. While the storytelling falters in some parts and digresses in others — like the abrupt shift of focus to a young village widow (Zeng Meihuizi) in the final third — Pluto Moment offers substantial drama and gripping images aplenty.
Production companies: iQiyi Motion Pictures, Way Good Entertainment, Yung Park Culture
Cast: Wang Xuebing, Liu Dan, Li Xinran, Yi Daqian, Yi Ping, Zeng Meihuizi
Director: Zhang Ming
Screenwriters: Zhang Ming, Gong Yuxi
Producer: Shen Yang
Executive producers: Gong Yu, Zhang Xiang, Jun Ma
Director of photography: Li Jinyang
Production designer: Wang Daxiong
Music: Chen Guo
Editor: Li Jin
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: Loco Films
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