Wu Lang - Absence
Credit: Berlin International Film Festival
by Sean Gilman Featured Film

Absence — Wu Lang [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 22, 2023

The first feature from Chinese filmmaker Wu Lang, Absence shares a title and cast with the director’s second short film, which played at Cannes in 2021. The distributor of this film’s synopsis for said short hints at the relationship between the two, suggesting that both are about two former lovers reuniting after some time apart. The short follows a road trip that the two take: “On the way back to Ying Ge Hai, [they] remain discrete regarding their respective life and tacitly restrict everything to the present.” It’s not immediately clear what that means, but it sounds like a good excuse to set up a lot of moody shots of Lee and Meng looking melancholy in the rain. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

The feature builds a bit more of a story. Again, Lee has returned to his former lover Meng. He’s been away from home — the island of Hainan, Yinggehai from the short is an area of southern China near the Vietnamese border and Hainan — for 10 years, serving a prison sentence for some kind of crime, probably covering up for something a friend’s dad did, or at least taking the fall for them. Meng is a hairdresser with a daughter whom she says is not Lee’s, but neither Lee nor us believe her. Meng is attempting to buy an apartment in the city, but the developer (Lee’s old criminal buddy) disappears along with her deposit. So the reunited couple and the daughter move into the apartment anyway, even though it’s nothing more than a concrete ruin flooded and overrun by sheep.

At every turn, Absence appears like it’s going to turn into a kind of a movie we’ve seen before. Its opening half hour or so is told in the static, minimalist style of the Taiwanese New Wave, with Lee giving yet another performance where he moves slow and barely talks (he is capable of acting like a normal guy: see Ann Hui’s 1999 Ordinary Heroes for proof). He’s wonderful, of course: he doesn’t need dialogue — he has a face. His romancing of Meng is patient but determined, though she only comes around when she needs to marry him in order to get the apartment. In this section, where the two come together, Absence shifts toward something else entirely. The shots are more expressive, less frontal and tableaux-like, reflecting the characters in mirrors, or isolating them in a single green window pane of an abandoned beach shack. There’s a lengthy sequence where Lee trails Meng as she leads him out of town wearing a stunning red dress; it’s like Wong Kar-wai filtered through Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

But just when we think we’re settling into some kind of romantic noir, with a femme fatale leading the guileless Lee into a revenge scheme against the developer who stole her money — possibly in response to them setting him up to take the fall again — Absence shifts once more into something much more special and original. Lee and Meng, innocent victims of forces larger than themselves which they have no control over or ability to oppose, simply refuse the terms of their oppression and remake their world to their own specifications by reclaiming the complex and turning it into a home. Wu’s images never lose their beauty, but they become more functional, less obviously stylized and systematic, instead finding striking images naturally arising from his environments. He has a particular gift for making the ground look unnatural: undulating mounds of earth at the construction site covered by green mesh, or stalagmitic tendrils of mud looking like frozen waves on a tidal flat that Lee wakes up on one morning. The unfinished complex is partially flooded, with squares of concrete filled with rain water which the family must carefully navigate to make their way into the building. Somehow these artificial pools even become home to fish and tadpoles, just as Lee and Meng make their home in the ruins. Life finds a way.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 7.5.