Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Pluto Moment' Shows How Cinema Is a Tool for Self-Discovery

Courtesy of Cannes
'The Pluto Moment'

China's Zhang Ming says his meditative Director's Fortnight effort is a "metaphoric presentation" of the difficulties of the filmmaking process itself.

The agonizing process of art house filmmaking in contemporary China gets the full metaphorical treatment in Zhang Ming’s The Pluto Moment.

Loosely based on The Tale of Darkness, a traditional song of mourning, the Directors’ Fortnight entry follows Wang Zhun, a director in search of inspiration for his new script, as he embarks on an unpredictable trek across China’s remote Shennongjia mountains in Hubei province with an urbane producer, Ding Hongmei; a young actor named Bai; and his loyal photographer, Du Chun. The journey delivers a relentless series of unexpected physical hardships and subtle emotional ebbs and flows on the protagonists.

Zhang, who made his directorial debut with In Expectation, which premiered at Berlin in 1996, says the project was born of his own process of creative discovery.

“The film can be regarded as a metaphoric presentation of the difficulties of the filmmaking process itself, but I also wanted to emphasize the very sensational, the very emotional feeling of filmmaking,” Zhang says.

Although bound by a collective creative mission, each character in the film undergoes his or her own inward process of discovery, he says. What begins as a location scouting trip gradually deepens into something much more personal and ambiguous.

“During the journey, everyone has more or less his own obscure goal or mission to finish,” Zhang explains. “My goal was to arouse an interpretation, or self-reflection, within the audience — that we always carry this sense of unfinished mission within ourselves.”

Zhang says he tried to capture this feeling of self-discovery through the film’s formal qualities. Every outdoor scene was shot during dawn or dusk to suffuse that poignant feeling of transition that comes during the magic hour.

“It’s a very ambiguous moment when everyone can feel something,” Zhang says. “We feel an inner desire that we have forgotten about or a childhood memory that was actually always there — the knowledge that there is something much bigger that we’ve been searching for but have forgotten about because of the bustle of daily life.”

The film’s title also is meant to evoke this sensation of vague awareness of cosmic truth. “I was very impressed by the idea that the planet Pluto exists in this kind of weak luminosity between lightness and darkness,” Zhang says. “Thinking about Pluto gives everyone this feeling of dark mystery — it’s there, but it’s only partially illuminated. I wanted to use this as a metaphor to represent the mentality of the film’s protagonist as well as my own as the director behind the project — hopefully the audience will feel it too and carry it with them.”

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 13 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.