“If this is the future, where is my jetpack?” goes the jokey refrain of those disappointed our present hasn’t caught up to the gleaming sci-fi dreams of the past. But this remarkably mature, confident and intricate debut from director Pengfei (produced by Tsai Ming-liang whose “Stray Dogs” Pengfei co-wrote) suggests that actually the future is here, it’s just that the science fiction that came true is not the shiny, optimistic futurism of “The Jetsons,” but the nihilist, class-riven brutalism of J. G. Ballard, transposed to modern urban China. “Underground Fragrance” is a work of both social realism and near-surreal formalism, of bottom-tier lives, dreams, and relationships crushed to dust under the weight of Chinese society bearing down from above. But it finds its enormous themes in the tiniest, quietest, and most intimate of character moments: the moving of a lighter, the sharing of a meal, the drinking of a glass of medicine.
In a squalid subterranean Beijing labyrinth, there is a warren of cell-like rooms housing poverty-stricken economic migrants who cook in the corridors and share a bathroom in which the shower is a sink. Yong Le (Luo Wenjie) is one such, a young man who subsists by scavenging recently vacated apartments for abandoned furniture. Temporarily blinded in an accident, he strikes up a tentative relationship with a young woman who has moved in a few rooms over. Xiao Yun (Ying Ze) works as a pole dancer but aspires to a better job, as do many of the underground residents who talk abstractly about “moving upstairs” in a heartbreaking literalization of the idea of upward mobility. This is a stratified society in which the very poor cannot even expect the dignity of daylight, or clearance space between head and ceiling.
Not quite in the same gutter but head also angled toward the stars is Lao Jin (Zhao Fuyu), an older acquaintance of Yong Le’s who owns a small, above-ground house which he is hoping to trade in for a glitzy apartment in the upper stories of an as-yet-unfinished high-rise. Against the wishes of his more pragmatic wife (Li Xiaohui), he is holding out for more money from the developers who want to buy his plot of land.
The subtlety and control of Pengfei’s approach, complemented by the superbly lit, perfectly framed, largely static camerawork from Chou Shu, is key to a story (co-written by Pengfei and Isabelle Mayor) that could otherwise wear its metaphors too heavily. There are potential contrivances, like Xiao Yun, who dances perfunctorily under the gaze of men all day falling for a guy who can’t see, or Lao Jin and his wife literally singing for their supper when they invite the developers to dinner in the hopes of coaxing a better deal. And contrasts between high spaces and low spaces, and shots on the staircases that connect them, abound. But the calm of the camerawork, the precision of the choreography and the microscopic detailing of the mise en scène instead invites us to invest in these lives as real, even in their most heightened and surrealist moments.
Jean-Christophe Onno’s plaintive piano-based score is used to good effect but sparingly because what is most memorable are the silences, and the long stretches without dialogue, wherein gestures and movements make the most eloquent statements. They’re sometimes playful, like when Xiao Yun creeps like a ghost into the blinded Yong Le’s room, getting an illicit thrill from the knowledge he doesn’t know she’s there. And they’re sometimes freighted with piercing disappointment as in a tremendous scene in which Lao Jin begs forgiveness of his wife by the small act of serving her a piece of chicken from the communal pot, and she, wordlessly and with cold, incredulous grace, removes it from her bowl and puts it back. And sometimes they’re simply stunning, as when Lao Jin, irritated by the hooting of an owl, shoots fireworks into the tree outside to try to scare it off.
If you could triangulate a point between Tsai Ming-liang’s intense fixity of purpose, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s uncasual artistry, and Jia Zhang-ke’s vivid social conscience, you might land somewhere near this extremely impressive and moving debut. Those are lofty names to invoke, but aside from an ending that suffers slightly from expectedness (it’s not untruthful, just more predictable than one might hope), and aside from its rather off-putting title, “Underground Fragrance” earns the comparisons, in its craft but also in its thematic reach and ambition. This is a world in which it’s only when you strive for a leg up the property ladder that you fall down a property chute, and it’s only when you start to believe in the possibility of real human connection that you lose it. In a society where social mobility is as good as a myth, it’s not despair you have to fear, but the absolute cruelty of hope.