'Two/One': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Tribeca Film Festival
Grounded, stylish filmmaking outweighs a simplistic premise.

Boyd Holbrook stars in a philosophical drama about men who share an identity and can’t be awake at the same time.

One sleeps, the other doesn’t in Juan Cabral’s first feature, a philosophically tinged drama in which two men on opposite sides of the world are parts of the same whole, or possibly dreaming each other. That idea about identity is much less astute and original than Cabral seems to think, but Two/One escapes the pretentious tone it might have carried thanks to the self-assured way he grounds characters in the vivid, precise, beautifully shot details of their lives.

Kaden, played by Boyd Holbrook (Narcos and Logan), is a ski jumper in Vancouver, aging out of his profession. Khai, played by Song Yang, is an executive in Shanghai. Cabral quickly establishes that when one man wakes, the other sleeps, and vice versa, which works because they are on opposite sides of the world. There’s no accounting for insomnia here, but then the film lives on a level detached from such practical concerns, at least for a good long stretch. 

Cabral, a successful director of commercials, creates a bright, crisp look of slightly enhanced reality, immersing us with a leisurely pace in the men’s lives. Khai exists in a glittering world of high-rise, glass-windowed buildings. He spends his spare time on a revenge site where lovers have posted intimate photos of their exes, and is particularly obsessed with a woman called Jia (Zhu Zhu), whose photos are not pornographic or even especially salacious. He is thrown when she turns up at his office as a new employee.

Kaden drives along remote snowy roads, and spends his time in training gyms and on ski slopes. One day he gets a call from an old girlfriend, Martha (Dominique McElligott), who vanished without a trace and wants to reconnect. 

As the film moves fluidly back and forth between the two, we begin to see how their lives are parallel. The big issues include the possibilities for relationships that could be dangerous. Kaden wants Martha back, but she is now married and has a child. Jia is drawn to Khai, but he is tortured by his secret, online knowledge of her.

Soon, smaller touches become apparent, as well. Kaden sees a lady bug in the steering wheel of his car, and before long Khai sees one, too. Kaden and Martha visit an art installation based on a surveillance camera, and then Khai sees a surveillance camera in the subway.

Both men have troubled relationships with their fathers. Beau Bridges has a few lively scenes as Kaden’s father, 70 and ready to divorce his mother. Khai’s father tells his son, "Don’t confuse simple coincidence with destiny," a warning the pic might have taken a little more to heart.

The men’s up-and-down romances provide some ballast, but in the end merely point to the universality of bad choices. Larry Smith’s elegant cinematography and Emiliano Fardaus’ editing help the similarities feed into each other gracefully, in the way a daytime event turns up transformed in a dream, a skewed echo of what happened. But the question of identity is more banal, like chicken or egg. Is one man dreaming the other? Who might have dreamed first? The exploration of a shared or parallel existence doesn’t go much deeper than that.

Holbrook and Yang echo each other’s performances wonderfully in their quiet restraint, and help keep us with the film even at its most elliptical, but there’s no disguising the flimsiness of the central idea, especially when the final shots clobber us with that point.

Toward the end, Cabral adds a suspenseful narrative. Kaden is going to Sapporo to a ski competition and Khai is going to Tokyo on a business trip, so they will be in the same time zone. They actually end up in the same airport lounge, which answers the question of what might happen when both are awake. It does not go well. In fact, the end is unexpectedly tragic.

Of course, story is not the crucial element here. Cabral set out to explore an existential issue. What he delivered instead is a solid demonstration of his filmmaking skill.

Production companies: RedRum Films,South Creek Pictures
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Song Yang, Beau Bridges
Director-screenwriter: Juan Cabral
Producers: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez Marengo
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: Michael Jovanovski
Editor: Emiliano Fardaus

Music: Nicolas Barry, Tomas Jacobi
Casting: Joanna Colbert, Yesi Ramirez
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)

96 minutes