Much like Helena Wittmann’s first feature, Drift — whose audaciously hypnotic visuals and elliptical narrative heralded a major directorial presence — Anthony Chen’s third film, conveniently also titled Drift, glosses over its dramatic elements in favor of emphasizing its panoramic landscapes. The key difference is that, in Wittmann’s case, ellipsis is rather the point of studying the relationship between narrative and time. Chen, conversely, relates less this story to its unfolding than he does laboriously realize it, and often in limp, weary fashion. Both Drifts, additionally, concern encounters between two women; but where Wittmann’s tantalizes with the bifurcation of a contingent and temporary relationship, Chen’s quickly turns tedious as it attempts to engineer an image of sisterhood and solidarity where neither can quite be found. Chen’s first film at Sundance, and as well his first English-language film to date (the director has previously worked with Singaporean and Chinese casts), Drift flounders, sadly, in its hastily conceptualized and hazily construed rendering of an enigmatic story, one part refugee history and one part spiritual confrontation.
Drift’s main subject is Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), a young Liberian woman who’s not quite the archetypal refugee figure — that voiceless and foreign presence who can’t quite adapt to Western social standards. Stranded on the sun-baked Aegean island of Santorini, Jacqueline is well-groomed, well-educated, and impeccably cosmopolitan, as we quickly conclude from her smooth Londoner’s accent. Her veneer, then, seems to contrast with her plight: with neither money nor accommodation, just a small backpack of all her worldly possessions, Jacqueline flits through Santorini’s touristic surroundings by day — offering foot massages at the beach for a pittance — and retreats to a secluded cove area by night to wash up and sleep. Over an indeterminate number of days, or perhaps weeks, Jacqueline acclimatizes somewhat to her place on this island, becoming a spectral and benign denizen, though she remains perpetually wary of being discovered or recognized by those around her.
When Jacqueline runs into Callie (Alia Shawkat), the vestiges of her turbulent past slowly but steadily disclose themselves to us. Jacqueline is not a climate refugee — not the kind we’re used to seeing on the evening news and in an increasingly polarized political discourse on human rights and responsibilities, anyway. Neither is Jacqueline the victim of personal failure, i.e. economic dispossession through gambling, drugs, and other such vices. She is, however, a historico-political subject in the most abstract sense, having been uprooted from relative comfort in her home country by its brutal civil war. Her father occupied some cushy ministerial role, details of which are sparse beyond vague recollections of men with machine guns guarding the family’s terraced compound; her mother and sister occupy a similar position in her memory, of the deeply intimate and irreducible reduced to murky, long-ago images of home. During scenes that follow the development of Jacqueline and Callie’s friendship — which is tenuous at first, owing to the former’s paranoia — Chen intersperses images and clips that are suggestive of a past relived in solitude, accounting for this paranoia and alluding, perhaps, to the inevitable catharsis that follows.
Adapted from Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, Chen’s film flaunts a self-satisfied stoicism, attempting to pass off Jacqueline’s physiognomic mystery as representative of the psychological ambiguity induced by such transformative experiences as national trauma. But such trauma, as Chen would have it, lacks ideological import: under the pretext of subjectivity, Jacqueline’s past is whittled down to unnamed and unplaced signifiers of plenitude and poverty. An overseas education is hinted at, with Honor Swinton Byrne cameoing in a posh London flat, and the identity of Jacqueline’s father is upsettingly withheld — was he a warlord himself, or an oppressor against whom Liberia’s civil war was fought? That Jacqueline seeks some kind of companionship in Callie, and vice versa, isn’t strictly implausible, but the way that Drift revels in its emotional undercurrents attests to a vagueness done no favors by Chen’s veering headfirst into sympathy caricature.
The director’s sophomore film, Wet Season, previously employed the trusty metaphor of rain in explicating the tempestuous social taboos associated with the sexual relationship between a teacher and her student. Drift, likewise, loses itself to the anthropomorphized water current and its karmic tranquility, serving as universal absolution for all: the good, the bad, the innocent, and even the lonely. It’s not quite deep enough to fall under the range of metaphysical, and there’s a grating emotional innocence present in Chen’s works which cheapens the stakes and — more damningly — loses the viewer’s attention. That Charles Taylor’s despotic rule over Liberia is entirely elided is one matter; Drift’s profound flaw lies, instead, in how myopic its microcosmic framing ends up. Though this film has few pretensions about being some allegory for the refugee consciousness amidst the dehumanizing neoliberalism of the West, the apolitical humanism at hand is bad enough. Drift is a glossy, landscape-first drama without the requisite emotional investment, beyond some callously spliced and carefully edited flashbacks of barbaric cruelty. And while Chen’s Singaporean status effectively allows him to render this Greco-American collaboration a global affair, it’s ceiling is as something that might yet make it onto Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s talk show on empowering and celebrating the diversity of gutsy womanhood.
DIRECTOR: Anthony Chen; CAST: Cynthia Erivo, Alia Shawkat, Honor Swinton Byrne, Zainab Jah; DISTRIBUTOR: Utopia; IN THEATERS: February 9; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.