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Nostalgia takes the lead in award-winning film

By Chen Bowen | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-03-22


Director Wu Lang (middle) and actress Li Meng attend the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival in February.[Photo provided to China Daily]

On a ferry to the island province of Hainan, several passengers wear woven straw hats sitting in a semi-enclosed cabin, with a few babbling children nearby. The boatman is silent, concentrating on the sea. Some passengers hold electric scooters, and tourists take photos from any advantageous spot on the deck. A sudden gust of wind blows the tourists' hats and they appear almost suspended, in midair.

The passengers' eyes are drawn to the bridge under construction in the distance that connects the island with the mainland. The huge bridge supports stand more than 100 meters high, straight into the sky as if standing sentinel.

Director Wu Lang, traveling on the ferry, is inspired by the huge contrast in size — the ferry seems like a duckweed leaf in the water, passing under the bridge supports.

After stepping on the island, the sound of machinery comes from all directions, the sand being piled into towers on the ground, and dust in the air. Wu hears from the locals that the ferry route will no longer exist once the bridge is completed. The road on the island will be widened, and high-rise buildings will be constructed to speed up the process of modernization.

Faced with these ongoing changes, the future, it seems, was laid out before him, and Wu decided to tell the story of the island from the perspective of a man returning home with an underlying uneasiness.

Absence, a feature film directed by Wu, premiered in Berlin, Germany, on Feb 21. It is the only Chinese film to be included in the Encounters section of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, which took place from Feb 16 to 26.

Encounters is known as the Berlinale's most dynamic section for innovative films.

An invitation letter from the 73rd Berlinale's organizing committee mentioned particularly that "Wu Lang's unique aesthetics and poetic lines are very impressive".

"Absence can represent Chinese movies, and appear on the world stage, exchanging ideas with global audiences and movie industry professionals, which is an 'encounter' itself," says Wu. "I believe film is a way to communicate."

Real life scenes

Wu, 32, graduated from the Department of Sculpture at the School of Art and Design, Hainan University. He doesn't feel that there is a big difference between filmmaking and sculpture, as both require thought and creation. "I feel that sculpture and film are in some ways just a medium, and telling a story through sculpture is basically the same as through film," Wu says.

Wu hopes to dedicate the feature film to the 10 years he has lived in the island province.

Absence is about life and making choices in difficult situations. It tells the story of Han Jiangyu (acted by Li Kangsheng), who returns to his hometown after a 10-year absence and tries to rekindle his relationship with former lover Su Hong (Li Meng). Han's long absence has created a gap between him and Su, and hardship and toil has also made Su emotionally closed off.

Han finds that he is out of place in the surrounding environment and his interpersonal relationships — even his methods of communication and language are out of touch. Although his efforts seem in vain, he doesn't give up trying to rebuild relationships.

"Everyone has experienced ups and downs in their past and gone through periods when they have had to escape, times when they have regretted something, or situations when they have had no choice in their actions," Wu says.

"With constant changes around me, I was at a loss in terms of my career and family, emotionally and spiritually. I longed to fit in. In a sense, making Absence is like finding a spiritual home to live in."

In the film, Su's plan to buy an apartment forces Han and her to face up to a crisis, while perseverance empowers them to carry on with their lives and make up for each other's absence.

Wu explains that the film is really about building relationships with the people around you, and returning to a spiritual home.

"The movie aims to provoke a thought — how we can hold on to some connectivity when we're facing massive changes, such as urbanization," he says. "We can easily drift with the current and feel lost in those transitions."

The story is not set in a particular year, but the social background of it is the microcosm of Hainan island, where Wu has lived in recent years. Since the establishment of the province in 1988, Hainan has been developing at a fast pace. It's like a test field in the country, according to Wu.

People's lives have been changed in Hainan. Some have encountered business or property failures and they may not know where to go, Wu says. "I instinctively feel that it's necessary to record this important history," he adds.

The film's cinematography has won acclaim. Retro is a keyword to describe its visual effects: Under the yellow-green filter, slot machines, tropical floral shirts and barbershops easily take audiences back decades.

There are also many animal elements in the film. The audiences will see a picture of a huge cheetah on the wall, wolf tattoos on a man's chest, birds in a building carrying branches, ducks swimming, tadpoles sleeping, and a flock of sheep in an abandoned building.

"To me, the movie is about building a spiritual home. There is only 'animal instinct' without logic," Wu says. "I want to avoid some of the traditional visual experiences, and maybe it's interesting to look at people from the perspective of nature."

One theme, two forms

The screenplay of Absence was selected as the venture capital project of the 2019 Shanghai International Film Festival. The resulting film was shortlisted for the official short film category at the 74th Cannes International Film Festival, became a candidate at the 33rd Palm Springs ShortFest, and won the Best Short Film at the 22nd Milan International Film Festival.

Making itself known at international film festivals was an encouragement for investors and for Wu, but the director made it clear that the feature film is not just an extension of that original production.

The two films share the same lead actor and actress, and have a similar setting for the protagonists' romantic relationship, but they tell different stories. "In the feature film, the main characters' reunion is more related to their homeland and nature," the director explains.

The feature film is expected to hit Chinese cinemas this year. Wu says that, so far, Absence has received invitations from multiple film festivals, which the crew would like to attend.

When asked to provide tips for fellow directors of the post-1990 generation, Wu notes that every era has its own opportunities, and making films requires the determination to stay the course and the courage to surmount every difficulty.

"When you choose to make films, you really need to be aware that you may have to accept uneasiness, difficulties and even hardships," Wu says. "Complain less, and do more. Believe in yourself, and shoot what you believe in."

In the director's eyes, film itself is a world, and it can be a means to communicate with people from different countries and cultures.

"For the younger generations of movie directors, I suggest they view their creative issues from a global perspective," Wu says.