New York 2020: THE CALMING Finds Inner Peace in Wondering
The Calming, like its title suggests, is a quiet contemplation of life and on our relationship with nature. Song Fang, who played the Chinese film student nanny role in Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, is a gifted director with gentle sensibilities who has a great eye for landscapes reflecting the mood of her protagonist. It turns out to be one of the best kinds of a 'woman wondering around in unknown places' cinema, one of my favorites, if there's such a genre.
Lin Tong (Qi Xi) is a Chinese filmmaker in Tokyo for an exhibition of her film. It's winter. It is revealed in conversation with her Japanese curator friend (played by Ichiyama Shozo, who produced many films of Jia Zhangke, who also serves as the film's producer) that she has broken up with her long time boyfriend. She tells him that she will make a visit to snowy Niigata, a prefecture in northern Japan, the setting for Snow Country, a classic modern Japanese literature by a famed writer Kawabata Yasunari. This is where Japanese people go to find a solace and tranquility. Qi's tall slender figure sticks out in the streets of Japan.
We are introduced to a magnificent view of the beautiful snow county, as the train takes her up north. Lin walks in the snowy streets, observes people in the streets, looking into the windows of shops, taking it all in.
Then we are in Mainland China. Lin has just moved to her new apartment in Beijing. She spends some time in her work - talking to colleagues and selecting slides for her next exhibition and such. She visits her elderly parents in the country. Her father's not doing well. The window from her parents’ house gives a view of a forest. She doesn't mention her breakup with her boyfriend when asked.
She travels to Hong Kong for her film, which is about a documentary on forests. She gives a talk afterword and makes a case for watching films in cinema vs gallery exhibitions. The impact is different, she says. While in Hong Kong, she stays with her friend who has a white husband and an adorable son. Their apartment with a rounding terrace again also offers spectacular view of lush mountains, spread out like a backs of green sea serpents in motion.
It's summer. She is back at her parents’ home. They take a stroll in a big park where she used to go as a child. The scenenery with the trees, lakes and bamboo forests are all very beautiful. They go down the memory lane, about Lin as a headstrong child, who'd defied her parents to go to the park at night in the rain and wonder around.
The Calming doesn't offer that much dialogue. Lin is not very kin on showing much of her emotions either. Only one scene where we see Lin being emotional is her attending an opera. We see her in the audience, her eyes closed, tears streaming down her face. It is Handel's Alexander Balus. It's an aria where Cleopatra sings "Convey me to some peaceful shore" when she learned her husband and her father's death.
Taking place in different seasons and regions, shot by Lu Songye, the film is a lush cinematic experience. With Qi almost always in the frame looking afar in profile but never in close up, there's a constant visual dialog between our female protagonist and her surroundings.
The recent Harley Quinn film Birds of Prey was criticized for the actions of its female protagonist predicated on her breakup with her man in finding herself. I believe The Calming lends something bigger than man-woman tit-a-tat. It is rather, relieving of various pressures in life through constant movement. It's a very personal, semi-autobiographical film and doesn't hide that fact. As a quiet observational drama, it has a kinship with many HHH, Akerman, and Varda’s films. With The Calming, Song Fang emerges as a major female voice in filmmaking.
I am privileged to witness the rise of gentle cinema this year and couldn't be happier with masterpieces like Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, Bas Devos's Ghost Tropic and now, Song Fang's The Calming. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth!
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com
- Fang Song
- Xi Qi