'Where Has Time Gone?': Film Review

Diverse and uneven.

Jia Zhangke and Walter Salles are among the five directors of shorts in an omnibus film celebrating the cultures of BRICS nations.

Over the past 12 months, Jia Zhangke has been busy making his mark on China's cultural landscape. He's established an arts center in his hometown, opened a thematic restaurant named after his most recent film Mountains May Depart, and launched an international film festival in a UNESCO-endorsed heritage site where he shot his 2000 breakthrough, Platform.

And then there's Where Has Time Gone? He produced this five-part portmanteau to mark the start of a five-year plan for co-productions between filmmakers from the world's five major emerging economies, known as BRICS nations: Brazil's Walter Salles, Russia's Alexey Fedorchenko (Angels of Revolution), India's Madhur Bhandarkar (Heroine), South Africa's Jahmil X.T. Qubeka (Of Good Report) and Jia himself representing China. The omnibus film revolves around the very vague theme of time, which the five directors develop into 18-minute shorts of diverse styles and varying quality.

More a statement of intent than anything, Where Has Time Gone? banks on its makers' pedigrees and the recent enthusiasm for auteur-driven portmanteaus. Following its world premiere in July at the BRICS Film Festival in Chengdu, China, it has found multiple berths in Busan and an upcoming special screening slot at Tokyo FilmEx. Unsurprisingly, it also featured at the inaugural edition of Jia's Pingyao International Film Festival.

Time begins solidly with "When the Earth Trembles," Salles' realistic and engaging piece based on a real-life catastrophe in which hundreds died or disappeared in a mudslide caused by a burst dam at a mining company's reservoir. Over a timespan of months, a schoolteacher (Maeve Jenkins) recovers from the loss of her husband and resumes some kind of normalcy through her work and an unspoken bond with a reconstruction worker. Her son (Richard Santiago), however, refuses to move on.

Visiting his ruined house daily, the boy leaves food there for his vanished father. At the shelter where he lives, he rebuffs the friendly overtures of his mother's suitor. Through this very simple narrative, Salles evokes — without judgment — people's different responses in the aftermath of a tragedy. An unspoken critique is directed at the official response to such collective trauma. The victims are shown stuck at the shelter months after the mudslide, a new start nowhere to be seen.

Like his idiosyncratic features, Fedorchenko's "Breathing" is similarly quirky in style, but markedly thin in story. A young woman (Alisa Kravtsova) returns to her far-flung shack somewhere in the Russian countryside in deep winter, only to find herself immediately sucked into a violent row with her drunken, abusive husband (Konstantin Itunin). A chase across the ice and a devastating fall later, the couple's power dynamic changes and their relationship becomes defined by — of all things — an accordion.

Time's standards drop sharply with its third title, "Mumbai Mist." Bollywood's Bhandakar offers a sappy story celebrating a friendship across age and class divides. A bored pensioner (Annu Kapoor) befriends a street urchin (Master Devrath) and finds solace in his young friend's poor but happy circle in the slums. Corny acting and cheesy music dominate all the way to an ending marked by disappearance, desolation and death.

Things pick up somewhat with Qubeka's "Stillborn," an intriguing, audacious attempt to pack a sci-fi allegory into a short. Mandisa Nduna plays a workman at an archeological lab where “remnants” of the past are examined. The chance discovery of a watch leads to her growing awareness of the harsh circumstances of her present, and she embarks on a mission to discover the past and eventually travels there for rebirth. Ambitious but incoherent at times, 'Stillborn' could perhaps be developed into a feature film like the Lolita-meets-noir genre-bender Of Good Report, which earned Qubeka critical acclaim.

Anchoring the omnibus is Jia's own entry, "Revive." Revolving around a long-married couple who rediscover their love, the director is at his best juggling all his responsibilities. He gives a lot of screen time to historic vistas of Pingyao, the host of his film festival, by having his leads play actors in a historical reenactment tour of the city. He ushers in discussion of the Chinese government's proposal to change its one-child policy by having the couple weigh the pros and cons of having a second child.

While "Revive" does seem to retread the tropes of his Beijing-set 2004 feature The World, here his protagonists end up back in their rural village in Jia's home province of Shanxi. In this drastically different provincial setting, the modern-thinking, FaceTime-friendly couple are forced back to basics. They are again migrant workers with an anguished past and an uncertain present in the shape of a teenage daughter they have left with their parents at the village. With nuanced turns from Zhao Tao and Liang Jingdong, "Revive" — and the whole omnibus — ends on a suitably melancholy note of emotion.

Production companies: Xstream Pictures (Beijing), Huanxi Media Group with VideoFilmes, Twelve Months/29th February, Bhandarkar Entertainment, Yellowbone Entertainment
Directors: Walter Salles ('When The Earth Trembles'), Alexey Fedorchenko ('Breathing'), Madhur Bhandarkar ('Mumbai Mist'), Jahmil X.T. Qubeka ('Stillborn'), Jia Zhangke ('Revive')
Screenwriters: Gabriela Amaral Almeida; Lidia Kanashova and Alexey Fedorchenko; Madhur Bhandarkar, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka; Jia Zhangke
Cast: Maeve Jinkings, Richard Santiago; Alisa Kravtsova, Konstantin Itunin; Annu Kapoor, Master Devrath; Mandisa Nduna; Zhao Tao, Liang Jingdong
Producers: Jia Zhangke; Dmitry Vorobyev, Alexey Fedorchenko; Madhur Bhandarkar, Renu Bhandakar; Michael Auret, Layla Swart
Executive producers: Jia Zhangke, Dong Ping; Maria Carlota Bruno and Marcelo Torres; Sanjay Dawra
Directors of photography: Inti Briones; Artem Anisimov; Keiko Nakahara; Jonathan Kovel; Yu Lik-wai
Production designers: Marcos Pedroso; Alexey Maksimov; Shamim Khopkar; Elsa Bleda; Ye Qiusen
Costume designers: Marcos Pedroso; Olga Gusak; Amirat Sarkar; Slidile Dladla
Music: Edson Secco; Amar Mohile; Joao Orecchia; Lim Giong
Editors: Joana Collier and Felipe Lacerda; Roman Vazhenin; Devendra Murdeshwar; Layla Swart; Matthieu Laclau
Sales: XStream Pictures (Beijing)
In Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Xhosa/Sotho, Mandarin
110 minutes