Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Sep 19, 2020 10:18 pm 
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SONG FANG: THE CALMING 平静 (2020) - virtual NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

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QI XI IN THE CALMING

Where life, though joyless, still is calm

I reviewed Son Fang's first film, Memories Look at Me, as part of the 2012 NYFF. This is her second.

This one, about movie lady Lin Tong (Qi Xi), a documentary filmmaker who's broken up with her boyfriend Guiren, is itself in a sense becalmed. Call it meditative, observational, or, to be more trendy, slow cinema. In Japan for movie business, Lin only tells one Japanese guy what's happened. In Tokyo her hotel view at night is gorgeous. She goes to Niigata to see snow, staying in hotels, taking public transportation, alone. She looks at things. We get the point: she's lonely, perhaps shut down. Back in China, she moves into a new apartment. Visiting with her parents, her father, a doctor, is very ill now. They don't know. She doesn't tell them. She gives him congee. That's not much for forty minutes, but it's a kind of warmup, warmup for contemplation. I started to miss the pigs in Gunda. They're so enthusiastic! Even if they only grunt or oink. But of course it's just a question of tuning in. The Letterboxd responses are very happy and approving.

When Lin meets up with her good friend in Hong Kong, the energy level rises. She has a nice caucasian husband who speaks Chinese, which one rarely sees in a film. Asked about Guiren, she says things are as usual, but "Let's change the subject." Gradually one realizes Lin is not so much sad as learning to live alone. But as a kind of artist, she is used to that state. I remembered T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, how Peter and Celia bond because they discover both like "to go to concerts alone, and to look at pictures." It's nice to experience certain things, like music and pictures, even wild nature, alone, but nicer if one can do that by choice, if one has a partner.

Lin is reminded she hasn't one. There's the nice husband, and another man who's just getting married, and the old couple observed walking, still in good health and still walking hand in hand. And Lin's own parents, but with the hint of loss in her good friend's grandmother's recent peaceful passing in her sleep.

To see how Lin is learning to experience things alone and to be, perforce, alone, we often see her against the window of a single hotel room, or on a train, or a boat ride, with the scenery behind her and no one nearby. Or lovely foliage, with no one else around. Every time the shot is beautifully composed, and that expresses calm. Aesthetics is a discipline that calms. "After great pain a formal feeling comes."

After many beautiful scenes experienced by Lin alone, she has pain, and spends time, unexplained, in a hospital. Then she attends a concert playing Handel's "Alexander Balus" oratorio, and hears the beautiful aria containing the lines, "Where life, though joyless, still is calm,/And sweet content is sorrow's balm." Life, though joyless, still is calm. That sums it up. "Sublime, don't you think?" as asks the Chevalier Danceny (Keanu Reeves) in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, after music like this. A tear drips down from Lin's eye as she listens, as it should.

The Calming is very beautiful, and calm, so beautiful and calm it's not quite real and can't quite breathe. But it can provide great satisfaction to some viewers. If one had a copy, one could take a hit off it at almost any point, and zone out.

The Calming 平静 ("Calm"), 92 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2020, and showed at the NYFF virtual festival Sept. 19. Screened online for this review as part of the New York Film Festival (Sept. 17- Oct. 11, 2020).

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