There’s no place to call home for China’s migrant workers in “Walking Past the Future,” a bleak exposé on how the country’s land shortage and economic downturn impacts more than just one generation. Through the heartbreaking fates of his factory girl protagonists, who risk their health just to earn some extra cash, writer-director Li Ruijun boldly alludes to a system that’s utterly indifferent to the welfare of its vast working class. However, the grueling human misery and glum tone provide almost no relief or hope for a solution. With “Lust, Caution” producer-distributor Bill Kong putting his clout behind the project, the film should enjoy better domestic release conditions than similar art-house endeavors.
Yaoting (Yang Zishan) works in a factory assembling motherboards and spends her free time chatting with a guy she met on social media. Her parents were peasants who left their hometown of Gansu to work in Shenzhen, but after years of labor, they are both laid off on the same day by their factories. The family journeys home to take up farming again, but per new property laws, their plot of land has been “redistributed” to the descendant of its pre-war landowners. In what feels almost like a reversion to feudal times, they are reduced to hired hands on their own soil. Worse still, after years of living in the city, they cannot keep up with other farmers, and are promptly fired.
Yaoting returns to Shenzhen determined to get a mortgage so that her parents and teenage sister Yaonan can move back to the city. However, business is looking iffy at her factory as she and her co-workers-cum-roommates Li Qian and Hong are made to go on long leave while production is temporarily suspended. Li, who’s addicted to plastic surgery, encounters grifter Xinmin (Yin Fang) after an eye job. He offers the women a chance to make a fast buck by being guinea pigs in high-risk medical tests at a hospital. Despite being the most skeptical of the three, Yaoting eventually gives in to the temptation of easy money.
Li’s last four features were all shot in his hometown of Gansu, a northeastern province lying between Tibet and Inner Mongolia. The most recent two, “Fly with a Crane” and “River Road,” reflect how state policy and relentless economic development conspire to dismantle centuries of tradition, from depriving one’s dignity in death to pushing ancient ethnic nomadic lifestyles toward extinction. Setting most of his new work in the southern Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, with only a small segment in Gansu, Li makes a clean stylistic break, adopting a less ambling narrative structure and more conventional dramatic confrontations and coincidences.
He focuses on urban squalor, accompanied by the constant hum of industrial activity and the clamor of nightlife. Yet, in his dystopian vision, urban and rural hardships have become indistinguishable — signified by a scene that shows Yaoting’s parents toiling at a dangerous-looking construction site back in Gansu, and later, in ironic parallel, Xinmin and Hong working in another building site in Shenzhen. Cinematographer Wang Weihua keeps the camera stationary most of the time to capture stuffy, confined interiors, until near the end, he brings a much needed visual flourish with an aerial sequence that suggests Yaoting’s mind floating freely away. Likewise, Iranian composer Peyman Yazidania, who scored for Li’s “River Road” as well as such masters as Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, spreads his uniquely soulful music sparsely but to magical effect.
Certainly, the message hits home with accumulated power, but Li is not the first, nor the most accomplished Chinese helmer to chronicle China’s gritty social reality. And for viewers unfamiliar with China’s conditions, some of the plot may seem far-fetched, even though they are in fact scarily accurate. What’s lost is the laid-back, dreamy poetry of his rural or desert landscapes, and the dry humor in his depiction of children and flinty elderly men in his previous works. A fantasy sequence in the finale barely lifts the spirit out of its consistent heaviness.
Perhaps with an eye for a more mainstream domestic market, Li has also discarded his usual cast of non-professionals in favor of well-known actress Yang Zishan as the lead. Indeed, Yang handles the role capably, without a single exaggerated note. Yet, for all the misfortunes Yaoting goes through, her character does not have great complexity. And there’s no place for Yang’s captivating joie de vivre — her forte as a romantic heroine.
Of greater range as a character is Xinmin, who comes across as inexcusably heartless at the start, when he exhorts money from Li Qian just to help her cross the road after her eye surgery, then recruits desperate, newly unemployed people for risky medical experiments. Both his smooth-talking and apparent lack of conscience are chilling symptoms of a ruthlessly materialistic society, but as his background and softer side emerge, the tone also warms a little toward the end, but not enough to foster moving empathy with the audience.