Tuesday, June 18, 2024

“AN UNFINISHED FILM”

THE STORYIn January 2020, a film crew reunites near Wuhan to resume the shooting of a film halted ten years earlier, only to share the unexpected challenges as cities are placed under lockdown.

THE CASTQin Hao, Mao Xiaorui & Qi Xi

THE TEAMLou Ye (Director/Writer) & Yingli Ma (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes


Lou Ye’s “‘An Unfinished Film”‘ is a captivating mockumentary that weaves a unique narrative. It follows a filmmaker’s journey to complete a project he had abandoned a decade ago, which unexpectedly transforms into a poignant and uplifting tale about the Covid pandemic from a Chinese perspective.

Once upon a time, we used to go into dust-filled attics, open chests, and cardboard boxes to discover our old memories. Nowadays, it’s more likely to be an old, boxy desktop PC with a wonky hard drive and (hopefully) no password lock. The year is 2019, and a film crew is in their offices recovering the footage from a movie shot ten years ago and never completed. The director Xiaorui (Mao Xiaorui) calls up the lead actor Jiang Chen (Qin Hao). His career has moved on. He has a packed schedule, and his wife is expecting a baby and isn’t necessarily keen to step back into an uncommercial about gay love, which might get him into trouble with the government censors. But out of loyalty and a sense of nostalgia for the youthful beginnings of his career, he agrees, and the crew find themselves in a hotel with the film tantalizingly near completion as news out of Wuhan of the virus begins to dominate.

Lou Ye’s recent films “The Shadow Play” (2018) “Saturday Fiction” (2019) have been highly stylized nourish thrillers, so his latest comes as a fascinating and refreshing departure into a grungier realism. With the handheld camera and extensive use of iPhone footage, anyone going in blind could be forgiven for believing they were watching a documentary or perhaps a hybrid documentary. This is underlined by the fact that Mao has more than a passing resemblance to Lou, and most of the cast are credited as playing themselves.

The first act already questions the nature of memory as the old film is screened for the crew and actors. It’s clever that the film isn’t that old—it was made in 2009, so only ten years have passed, though technology has moved on so quickly that the digital footage betrays its age. Is the past more difficult to look at when it is still relatively near? When does it still include something of the now?

In the hotel, as the film has been almost completed, the onset of the virus is played out with an accelerating velocity and the rhythm of a found footage horror movie. First, rumors are dismissed; then, a crew member from Wuhan is told he has to leave. People begin to pack up their gear. The will to continue filming at all costs begins to dissolve as the crisis deepens and the hotel looks like it is heading for a lockdown. Jiang is particularly desperate to get out because his wife has just given birth to their baby. His desperation leads him to confront the police, who are now locked down everywhere, and opens up another theme in the film: the violent state’s response to the pandemic. Nursing cuts and bruises, Jiang sits in his hotel room talking to his wife Sang Qi (Qi Xi) on Zoom, attending work conferences, and filming out of his window.

One of the ironies of watching a film about memory is rediscovering the COVID crisis, which has, to some extent, been repressed in our own memories. A whole vocabulary – remember omicron? – and a series of rituals have vanished like the pain of the dentist. COVID also had the effect of concertinaeing several years into a timeframe that could last months or a decade – I honestly don’t know. In this sense, the film is partly a recreation and partly a memorial.

Of course, there is loneliness and desperation and a sense of lurking dread as the virus claims its victims. However, screenwriters Lou and Yingli Ma also create the silliness of the time. A group video chat to celebrate New Year descends into a riot of dancing and fun of almost irrepressible good spirit – until, of course, it is repressed: “Return to your rooms or you will face the severest legal consequences.” Occasionally, the narrative is broken as stories from the internet are picked up: the death of the whistleblower Dr. Li Wengliang, the dancing of care workers, and the moment of silence in Wuhan before the lockdown was finally lifted.

“An Unfinished Film” feels like the first of a second wave of COVID movies, those that will deal not just with the pandemic but also with our memory of it and the consequences that have since played out. Lou includes scenes of social dissent and public demonstrations against the public health authorities that stand as a reminder of how disruptive this was everywhere.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A beguiling and gripping drama that plays out like a documentary.

THE BAD - That title...Who wants to see an unfinished film? Thoughts and prayers go to the marketing team behind this one.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>A beguiling and gripping drama that plays out like a documentary.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>That title...Who wants to see an unfinished film? Thoughts and prayers go to the marketing team behind this one.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"AN UNFINISHED FILM"