'Present. Perfect': Film Review | Rotterdam 2019

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Leisurely, illuminating immersion into the streams of Chinese life.

Zhu Shengze's documentary, entirely compiled from internet footage, scooped the top prize at the Dutch jamboree.

Winner of this year's €40,000 ($45,600) Tiger Award at Rotterdam, Zhu Shengze's documentary Present. Perfect is the first movie made entirely from found footage to scoop such a major prize. A two-hour compendium of extracts from Chinese live-streaming online platforms, the cumbersomely-titled Hong Kong / U.S. co-production will doubtless find favor with curators of non-fiction-oriented festivals and channels in the wake of its Dutch success. But at its leisurely length — half an hour might be profitably trimmed — the picture makes very marginal appeal as a theatrical proposition.

The closest parallel is artist Bing Zhu's well-traveled Dragonfly Eyes (2017), an experimental narrative assembled entirely from the same country's myriad security and surveillance cameras, which clocked in at a relatively lean 81 minutes. In her third feature-length documentary following Out of Focus (2014) and Another Year (2016), director/editor Zhu Shengze makes no attempt to organize her material into any kind of story framework. Instead she offers myriad glimpses into dozens of ordinary lives across the world's most populous nation. It's a rich pageant of the quotidian.

An opening title card notes that the live-streaming phenomenon, which at its height counted nearly half a billion users, eventually attracted government attention and is now the watchful eye of the official "cyberspace administration." Despite this climate of censorship, the live-bloggers presented here —known as "anchors," each in charge of their own "showroom" — speak pretty candidly, interacting with viewers who post text comments and questions, and even donate cash in the form of virtual gifts.

The anchors are thus both diarists and performers, comprising a small snapshot of a bewilderingly vast internet business. The selection and arrangement of clips is of course the crucial creative element here: the film is divided into four parts, each heralded by a superimposed intertitle in bold color. The footage has otherwise been rendered entirely monochrome, giving a uniform (and somewhat drab) look to original material of varying resolution and quality.

As the sections unfold a small handful of particularly engaging anchors emerge as the principal protagonists, such as factory-worker Jinjiang, an articulate young woman who chats away in beguilingly matter-of-fact fashion while assembling underwear amid loudly droning machinery. A street-artist with limbs of severely restricted growth is perpetually upbeat and cheerful; a transgender woman speaks of how becoming a showroom anchor helped her overcome loneliness and isolation; an exhibitionist street dancer indefatigably seeks urban locations in which to perform.

A prominent unifying theme is the idea of remaining positive and resilient despite adverse circumstances — most of the participants seem to bump along at the tougher end of the economic spectrum. Anchors and their unseen viewers form part of a virtual community which has, for many, taken the place of face-to-face interaction. "Do we still have something called friends?" ponders the street artist. "Yes, but rare." Punctuated with moments of illumination, humor and even occasional visual flair —the opening shot executes a stately 360-degree cityscape pan from a high crane — Present. Perfect manages to retain interest despite a certain repetitiveness and some patience-taxing longueurs.

Production companies: Burn The Film, Tender Madness Pictures
Director / Screenwriter / Editor: Zhu Shengze
Producers: Zhengfan Yang, Wang Yang
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Competition)
Sales: Burn the Film (burnthefilm@gmail.com)
In Mandarin Chinese
No Rating, 124 minutes