Credit: NYFF
by Sean Gilman Film

The Calming | Song Fang

September 28, 2020

Song Fang’s long-awaited second feature film premiered at Berlin shortly before the world it depicts completely fell apart. As such, it is the perfect film to watch in this time of socially distanced online film festivals, at least for those of us who enjoy torturing ourselves with a vision of what once was and is no longer. A director travels around Japan, China, and Hong Kong, showing her film at various festivals. She meets people, occasionally — new acquaintances, old friends, visits to her elderly parents — but mostly she is alone — on trains, in hotel rooms, on long walks in parks. A hint of a backstory is given: she has broken up with her longtime significant other. But there’s very little detail, not that it would matter much anyway. The point, such as it is, is that she’s alone now, but still in the world. 

Like her excellent 2012 debut, Memories Look at Me, The Calming is a film that understands the joy of a nap in the afternoon sun or the feel of wind blowing through green trees. Or, most of all, the sound of that wind, captured by the brilliant sound designer Zhang Yang. Also like Memories, her latest work enjoys watching people look out of windows, in the parents’ apartment especially, which looks to be very similar to, if not the same as, the parents’ apartment where her debut took place. Here we watch people watching the streets and the sky, but Song never cuts to a point of view shot to show us what they’re seeing. And she shouldn’t: it’s not a film about looking at the world, it’s a film about a person looking at the world. The Calming’s particular slow cinema style seems now to come from another dimension, a time long ago when a person could travel far from home and watch movies with strangers and wander unfamiliar, yet unthreatening, streets. It’s a film about a rebirth, a re-centering, the recreation of the self that must come after a life-changing event. Rarely has a film made me more jealous.

Published as part of NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.