Thursday, January 10, 2019

First Look ’19: The Pluto Moment

It is even harder to be an independent filmmaker in China than it is here. Fortunately, Wang Zhun is all about doing things the hard way. He will lead a scouting trip into the Sichuan mountains in search of an authentic performance of a traditional mourning song before his producer can arrange adequate financing. He hasn’t even finished the script, for that matter. Nevertheless, he might just find something to stimulate his creative process, even if he was not looking for it in Zhang Ming’s The Pluto Moment, which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

Wang is famous enough to be married to superstar Gao Li, but not commercial enough for her management to encourage her appearance in his upcoming film. Yet, she is still willing, if he would just finish the script. For inspiration (or procrastination), Wang and his producer Ding Hongmin head off to provincial Sichuan, hoping to record The Tale of Darkness, an epic oral poem that somehow was converted into a funeral dirge. Ding is also hoping to land a sponsorship from one of the county governments through the back-scratching of their fixer, Luo, a modestly corrupt local official. Alas, both song and funding prove elusive.

They have no money and no script, but they still have crew problems when the assistant director Du Chun goes AWOL. Ding immediately suspects Wang has engaged in a smarmy behavior with her. Although there is something between them, it is more complicated and ambiguous than the producer (and everyone else) assumes. Eventually, the skeleton crew decides to follow Luo’s vague leads for legit Tale of Darkness performances at even more remote villages. At this point, Wang’s troubled film becomes the no-budget equivalent of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Gilliam’s Man of La Mancha.

In the third act, Pluto takes a sharp turn and a dramatic shift in perspective that you just have to go with, because it really makes the film different and sad and special. Zeng Meihuizi (a.k.a. Chloe Maayan) is remarkably sensitive and sensual as Chun Tai, the widowed innkeeper who hosts Wang Zhun. Wang Xuebing does some of his best work to date as the lost (literally and figuratively) director. It hardly seems like much of an armchair psychiatrist’s stretch to speculate how his own career scandal gave him greater affinity for the professionally marginalized Wang Zhun.

It is a strong ensemble all the way around. Liu Dan is so acerbic and jaundiced as Ding the producer, you have to be charmed by her. Likewise, Yi Ping portrays all of Luo’s pettiness and pomposity in a very human way, without resorting to shtick or bombast. Only Yi Daqian looks like he is reaching as Bai Jinbo, the young actor forced to serve as the production gofer.

Cinematographer Li Jinyang makes the Sichuan mountainside look mysterious and even mystical. Frankly, this is one of the few films that would probably continue to yield more through repeat viewings over time. It is one of the best films about the filmmaking process since Day for Night, which is high praise indeed. Very enthusiastically recommended, The Pluto Moment screens this Sunday (1/13), as part of First Look at MoMI.

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