Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu has been a bit of a slow burn in the West. Despite having directed 12 feature films since 2003, only a handful have made waves on the broader film circuit. These include two early works, Grain in Ear (2005) and Dooman River (2011), and most recently Yanagawa (2021), which received a lightning-quick U.S. theatrical release — Zhang’s first. Even competition slots at two high-profiles — Desert Dream (2007) in Berlin, and Gyeongju (2014) in Locarno — did surprisingly little to increase his visibility.
It’s possible that this will change with his latest film, The Shadowless Tower, which also competed in Berlin earlier this year. To call a work of cinema “novelistic” is often to damn with faint praise, suggesting that the filmmaker has sacrificed filmic considerations in order to foreground a narrative structure better suited to another medium. But like the best “novelistic” films — one thinks of Yi Yi (2000) and Drive My Car (2021) — The Shadowless Tower communicates complex states of being through framing, camera movement, and the accretion of detail over time. Although Zhang’s style has been consistently patient and meticulous, he has achieved something of a higher order with this new film, his literary and directorial instincts achieving an ideal harmony.
At the center of The Shadowless Tower, narratively speaking, is Gu Wentong (Xin Baiqing), a middle-aged divorcee eking out a living in Beijing as an online food critic. His life is in the permanent doldrums, and his only moments of unadulterated happiness are spent with his four-year-old daughter Smiley (Wang Yiwen). But for reasons left largely unexplained, apart from vague references to how “busy” Gu is, Smiley lives with Gu’s older sister Wenhui (Li Qinqin) and her husband (Wang Hongwei). Over time, we see that Gu is both too financially insecure and — frankly — too depressed to be a full-time father, much to his shame.
But that shame, like so much else in The Shadowless Tower, is almost wholly internalized. For a writer, Gu has a deeply ambivalent relationship with words. Frequently, he follows an utterance by saying “that’s not what I meant,” as if wanting to retract a statement even before making it. At many points, characters chide Gu for being “too polite,” which is code for passive-aggressive diffidence. While some viewers may struggle with Zhang’s leisurely pacing and the subtle precision of Piao Songri’s camerawork, this style and atmosphere perfectly reflect the stop-and-start aimlessness of this man whose identity seems to have cratered when his marriage fell apart. This is nowhere as evident as in Gu’s inscrutable relationship with Ouyang (Huang Yao), the 25-year-old photographer who shoots the food for his reviews. They are together constantly, and at various points she tries to initiate a sexual relationship, or maybe more, with Gu, to no avail. At other times, they spar like frenemies, and in still other moments, they tell strangers they are father and daughter, which is quite plausible given their age gap.
What Gu and Ouyang actually do share is a primal wound that neither will directly address. When he was five, Gu’s father (played by Fifth Generation titan Tian Zhuangzhuang) was forced to leave his family behind. We learn that he came by on the kids’ birthdays to gaze at them secretly through a window, and after finding the old man’s address, Gu lurks around his father’s home staring at him. Ouyang, meanwhile, has her own daddy issues, and it is to Zhang’s great credit that he allows Gu and Ouyang to hover around each other like charged particles, their relationship never succumbing to cliché.
But while Gu is central to the film narratively speaking, the true geographical center of The Shadowless Tower is the White Pagoda, a 13th-century structure that, it is said, casts its shadow many miles away in Tibet, but leaves no such impression in Beijing. This architectural anomaly speaks to the complicated place of Buddhism in the People’s Republic, but Zhang, even more than this, allows it to serve as a looming metaphor for a solitary life, for people who — for whatever reason — refrain from making their presence felt in the lives of others. Such a hulking symbol could have been unbearably clumsy, with all the negative connotations of literary impulses clashing with cinematic expression. But like so much else in this film, the actual Shadowless Tower simply stands there, obdurate in its brute physicality. But everything is always moving, and The Shadowless Tower marks time like a sundial, whether its characters see it or not.
Published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.