'The Future Perfect' ('El futuro perfecto'): Locarno Review

Locarno Film Festival
A droll exercise in rethinking cinematic "language."

Argentina-based German director Nele Wohlatz's deadpan comedy won the best first feature prize at the respected Swiss festival.

It takes skill to successfully handle heavy issues with a light touch, but that's what German-born, Argentina-based writer-director Nele Wohlatz pulls off with her delightfully original documentary/fiction hybrid, The Future Perfect (El futuro perfecto). This wryly amusing, intriguingly stylized tale of a Chinese teenager in Buenos Aires was named best debut feature when premiering in the 'Filmmakers of the Present' sidebar at Locarno beating a 20-strong field that included no less a rival than Golden Leopard winner Godless.

While a 65-minute running time falls short of what some might term proper "feature" length and poses a minor challenge for programmers and exhibitors, this droll miniature fulfills the old adage about good things coming in small packages. It's certainly a snip for plentiful further festival play and warrants a shot at art house exposure in receptive territories perhaps paired with Wohlatz's 20-minute short The Perfect Backpack (2014).

Both works, like Wohlatz's fascinating 2013 effort Ricardo Bar (co-directed with Gerardo Naumann), address the artificiality of current cinematic conventions, placing crucial details of their own production front-and-center. This kind of deconstruction is always a risky creative gambit, but it's one which in Wohlatz's case has yielded bountiful dividends.

Here the director casts appealing newcomer Xiaobin Zhang as a lightly fictionalized version of herself, an 18-year-old whose confidence in her new country steadily grows as she attends Spanish-language classes with other Chinese YAs. These classes rely on role-playing exercises which allow the students to briefly — and stiffly — perform simulations of everyday scenarios. They sometimes adopt the cipher-like personas of rudimentary characters, as when Xiaobin "becomes" Spanish nurse Beatriz.

Wohlatz takes the stripped-down formulas of these language exercises as her guiding template for the bulk of the film, with nearly every exchange being conducted in an uninflected, formalized manner — a Robert Bresson-style flatness through which Xiaobin's winsome charm consistently manages to shine. The plot is deliberately two-dimensional, revolving around Xiaobin's halting courtship with Indian immigrant Vijay (Saroj Kumar Malik); this lukewarm quasi-romance unfolds in tandem with her increasing determination to break away from her traditionally minded parents. The two cinematographers' camera never gets closer to the family residence than the other side of the street, emphasizing the fact that Xiaobin only comes alive when she's out and about.

Things become rather more complicated when she moves onto a more advanced level of Spanish, discovering the delights of conditional future tenses ("What kind of state would we like to achieve?") — Mandarin Chinese, in contrast to most European languages, doesn't operate in terms of tenses. This development, along with Xiaobin's increasing confidence and maturity, opens up a quartet of drastically different potential "endings" for the film. Each are amusingly visualized by Wohlatz, before a nifty coda that wraps things up on a profitably enigmatic and open note. By this point, The Future Perfect has successfully touched on complex themes of immigration, identity and the role of language in personal development and social interactions — all on an obviously minuscule budget, and in a running time exactly half that of, say, Suicide Squad.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Filmmakers of the Present)
Production company: Murillo Cine
Cast: Xiaobin Zhang, Saroj Kumar Malik, Mian Jiang, Dong Xi Wan, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Maria Alche
Director-screenwriter: Nele Wohlatz
Producers: Cecilia Salim, Nele Wohlatz
Cinematographers: Roman Kasseroller, Agustina San Martin
Editor: Ana Godoy
Composer: Federico Orio
Sales: Murillo Cine, Buenos Aires

Not rated, 65 minutes