A sixty-five minute film is always a difficult commodity to place, yet “The Future Perfect” is such an unpretentious delight that it would be a shame to relegate it to specialty streaming sites or obscure sections at festivals. By replicating the quasi-stilted dialogue and stiffness of language classes, which Wohlatz has spill out of the classroom and into daily conversation, the film disarmingly grants deeper life to the immigrant experience than what’s usually seen in much more dramatic affairs. Very few audiences won’t be charmed by Nele Wohlatz’s creatively original take on a Chinese teen immigrant in Argentina, and Locarno’s prize for best first feature should help break down some barriers.
Eighteen-year-old Xiaobin (Zhang Xiaobin) is a recent émigré in Buenos Aires, where she’s rejoined her family after an unspecified time living apart. She’s got a job in a deli, but her Spanish is so poor she can’t understand the customers, and she’s fired. She easily finds supermarket work, which is where she meets Indian immigrant Vijay (Saroj Malik), a customer who asks her on a date.
Unbeknownst to her parents, who have no interest in integrating into Argentine society, Xiaobin takes Spanish lessons. The extremely clever conceit of “The Future Perfect” is that as Xiaobin learns new tenses, so her life moves from past and present to an unconditional, and even hypothetical, future. Wohlatz shifts back and forth between Xiaobin’s regular life and the classroom, involving fellow students as they practice conversational Spanish via the usual stereotypical questions-and-answers that are the backbone of all language courses. As a marvelous treat, indie film stalwart Nahuel Pérez Biscayart makes an unexpected appearance, speaking Mandarin, apparently playing himself as an informal guest speaker talking with the class.
Given the large numbers of Asian immigrants in European cities, it’s extraordinary how often they’re ignored by contemporary cinema, so it’s especially welcome that Wohlatz has made a film that’s fresh, funny and completely natural — so natural that the viewer is never quite sure how much real life is mixed in. Toward the end, as Xiaobin imagines possible futures, it becomes clear this is no docu-fiction, but the neorealist vibes and complete lack of affectation add a level of truthfulness which increases the sense of pleasure.
Wohlatz’s sensitivity to language, the way it’s used and how the ability to express oneself literally changes the manner in which we deal with the world around us, is subtly yet rigorously demonstrated, not just with the words and tenses themselves but how they’re spoken. Zhang and Malik, as well as Xiaobin’s classmates, speak with the wooden tones of people learning an unfamiliar vocabulary, negotiating, and integrating not just foreign words but notions that, through use, lead to more artless dialogue. Visually the film is pleasantly basic, though conceptually its delightfully rich.