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Having already made four films set in China’s provincial and rural margins, Li Ruijun turns his eye on the discontents of modern Chinese urban life with Walking Past the Future, the only Chinese-language film in Cannes’ Official Selection this year. Featuring an against-type performance from A-lister Yang Zishan and backed by Hong Kong’s Edko Films, the movie is perhaps the 34-year-old Chinese filmmaker’s most accessible and commercially viable outing yet.
Chronicling a young factory worker’s increasingly desperate efforts to earn enough to buy an apartment for her ailing and destitute parents, Walking Past the Future offers earnest and eloquent drama somewhat undermined by a slightly protracted and conventional third act. Nevertheless, Li’s human and contemplative take on China’s development woes should interest distributors and festival programmers aplenty, with French outfit MK2 being the first to secure territorial rights as the film bows at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.
Previously known for her roles in the romantic comedies So Young and 20 Once Again, Yang (who is also credited as executive producer) plays Yaoting, an average-looking 20-something working at an electronics factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. After being laid off, her parents (Zhou Bo and Naren Hua) decide to leave for their home village in northwestern China, arriving to discover how their ancestral home has been turned into a sheepfold, their family land taken over by a village big shot, and their physical conditions no longer fit for life in the countryside.
This first section is the film’s strongest, as Li illustrates slowly and vividly the family’s anguish in feeling out of place in both the city (their cramped flat sits adjacent to an elevated railway track) and back to their so-called roots in the rural hinterlands. Their relatives poke fun of their pallid complex, and the landowners fire them after a day in the fields because they simply work too slowly for him.
Pained by her parents’ predicament in the village, Yaoting returns to Shenzhen with the hope of earning enough money to retrieve her parents and buy a new apartment to accommodate the whole family. While hanging out with her frivolous colleague Li Qian (Wang Ting), Yaoting gets to meet Xinmin (Yin Fang, Blue Sky Bones), a smalltime hustler who pays people to take part in shady clinical trials. Egged on by Li and eyeing the money on offer, Yaoting reluctantly joins the scheme — and returns for more because of the pressing need to deliver a down payment on a new flat.
Wang Weihua’s camerawork is certainly exquisite, with his mix of static and moving shots revealing the alienating environments the characters unravel in. It’s increasingly apparent, however, that Li — like Yaoting and her family — is working outside his preferred metier here.
Reportedly losing a lot of weight to play her scrawny character, Yang’s performance is certainly bold and effective. But she and her co-stars have to cope with thinly sketched characters, their trajectories and final destinies weighed down by cliches. One of the narrative’s major missteps is Yaoting and Xinmin inadvertently connecting with each other through anonymous avatars on social media — a thread that eventually and expectedly leads to a jarringly melodramatic identity-reveal moment.
Faced with her own physical deterioration because of the drug tests she participates in, Yaoting says: “I did it out of my own will — it’s nobody’s fault.” It’s a line that encapsulates Walking Past the Future’s major problem. By reducing his film to a melancholic relationship drama, Li ignores the overwhelming social malaise shaping his characters’ gloomy present and future — the title of the film, after all, is about how hope and progress seem to have passed them by.
While offering lavish imagery and bottled-up angst aplenty, Walking is perhaps a bit too pedestrian to really fire the viewer up about the discontents of China’s disfranchised working class. There’s a lot of potential here, though, and Li could very much consider this exercise as his first step towards merging his more art house aesthetics with mainstream concerns.
Production companies: Edko Films Ltd, QiTai Ocean Culture & Media, Irresistible Alpha, PULIN Production, Hucheng No. 7 Films
Director-screenwriter-editor: Li Ruijun
Cast: Yan Zishan, Yin Fang
Producers: Lin Jing, Zhang Min
Executive producers: Nathan Yang, Bill Kong, Ryuhei Chiba, Ivy Ho, Yang Zishan, Zhang Min
Director of photography: Wang Weihua
Art director: Han Dahai
Music: Peyman Yazidanian
Casting: Wu Yanze
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Edko Films
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