Whenever you hear a politician propose a massive public works project, clutch your wallet tightly. Such advice definitely would have been warranted in the case of the Taoyuan special municipal district in Taiwan. Conceived as a regional transportation hub built around a shiny new airport, Taoyuan has become a costly boondoggle. Those on the inside surely profited just the same, but independent speculators like Allen found themselves holding the bag. As a result, the quiet speculator must live a desperate, rootless existence in Jheng-Neng Li’s Aerotropolis, which screened during the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.
Anticipating a real estate boom, Allen sunk his entire inheritance into a Taoyuan luxury condo. Unfortunately, the market drastically underperformed, making the property dashed difficult to flip. In hopes of recouping some of his investment, Allen keeps the flat in pristine condition, sleeping in his car and living in the public spaces of the airport and bullet-train stations (having just flown through several New York airports, we have to admit the Taoyuan facilities look really nice).
The only time Allen spends in his property are the nights when his flight attendant girlfriend Tzu visits, but the only amenities he can offer are an air mattress and a bottle of wine. That is unfortunate, because she obviously craves the warmth and security of a legitimate home.
There is no getting around it, Aerotropolis is a festival kind of film with virtually zero theatrical prospects. It is also the work of a keen stylist that reflects a bitter disillusionment with the Taiwanese political and economic establishment. There are some stunning visual compositions in the film, which you can’t possibly miss, since Li is working almost entirely in long takes. Yet, that kind of aestheticizing technique rather suits the character’s limbo. You can almost think of it as Spielberg’s The Terminal or Lost in Translation, as remade by Bela Tarr.
Even though Li tries to keep his characters at a distance, we still get a direct sense of their inner desperation. Both Chia-Lun Yang and Jui-Tzu Liu express volumes without words and withstand the withering focus of Li’s lens. Viewers will feel for them both, even when he starts to make us rather uncomfortable.