Film school aesthetics triumph over real characterization in “Passages,” in which the two protags do an awful lot of metaphorical traveling to little purpose. Story of two mainland Chinese students who skip class to raise some quick money selling magic mushrooms looks just fine, with neatly composed, autumnal locations, but is too much in love with its own mannerisms to let the audience in. Familiar fest fare looks likely to travel the circuit to respectable notices, with subsequent exposure mostly on specialist webs.
A goods train pulls into a small siding at night, somewhere in central China, and two young people who’ve hitched a ride climb out. Chen Sihan (Geng Le) and his g.f., Xiaoping (newcomer Chang Jieping), are making their way as cheaply as possible to the city of Wuhan, on the Yangtze River, to buy some spores of rare Lingzhi mushrooms they’ve seen advertised. A boatman (Gao Hu), who gives them a ride part of the way, warns them to be careful they’re not cheated; sure enough, when they arrive in Wuhan, they hear the sellers have been arrested.
Bargaining some spores from a nearby biotechnology institute, they manage to make it back to their homes in Anhui province, where both are blasted by their teachers and parents for putting their chances of getting into university in peril.
When they try to cultivate the spores, and realize they’ve been cheated, both set out again to Wuhan to try to get a refund –after which they travel home again, rethink their futures and then set out “for the South.” Both, however, now seem set on different paths in life.
Pic’s theme of whether to sacrifice one’s education in favor of quick bucks now is a valid one, given the massive changes in contempo mainland life. And in a rarefied way, writer-director Yang Chao (whose short “Run Away” showed in Cannes’ Cinefondation section in 2001) sketches a true picture of some aspects of modern life in China — from rural hijacking of trucks through uncooperative officials to family and establishment pressures to conform.
But Yang’s two protags are so thinly drawn — especially the quiet, indecisive Sihan, played by well-known musical figure Geng with a kind of handsome impassiveness — that they lose viewers’ sympathy early on. Their separate families are, in fact, drawn with much more practical sense and affection, making both Sihan and Xiaoping look like conscious losers rather than rebels with a cause.
What remains is the obvious metaphor of their journeys, though this leads to no special self-awareness and is powered by minimal, largely explanatory dialogue.
Though carefully shot, in the cold light of fall, and always meticulously composed in longish takes, pic has a hollow center; it plays like a compendium of styles familiar from other young Mainland filmers, from Jia Zhangke (“Platform,” “Unknown Pleasures”) to Wang Xiaoshuai (“Drifters”).
Pic played Cannes under the French title “Passages,” which appears to have been adopted as the English one also, although both the French and Chinese titles translate as “Journeys.” Though it’s never explained in the movie, the Lingzhi mushroom actually exists, a rare medicinal plant that’s meant to bring the dead back to life.