Tracking an independent film crew on a difficult field research trip in Southwest China, Sixth Generation writer-director Zhang Ming’s “The Pluto Moment” ponders the relationship between life and death, nature and society, art and commercialism. Unlike many films about filmmaking, which lend themselves to a kind of meta self-awareness, this deceptively simple yet quietly revelatory drama features engaging characters and offers wryly ironic comments on the unpredictable nature of film production.
Since debuting with “In Expectation” in 1996, Zhang has made films suffused with enigmas, revolving around disappearances, sudden breakups, and other inexplicable human behavior, often showing fog enveloping Wushan, the landmark of his birthplace, to evoke a sense of mystery. Here, he uses blindness as a metaphor for the unknown, with which his protagonists grapple, while also symbolizing the director’s own struggle as he spent years trying to get this project off the ground.
The film’s mordant prologue pokes fun at the ambitions of China’s filmmaking industry, for which international co-productions are all the rage. Independent director Wang Zhun (Wang Xuebing) goes to a film set in Shanghai to look for leading actress Gao Li (Miya, “Kung Fu Yoga”). The French producer (Natacha Devillers, producer of Sino-European arthouse films like “Shanghai Trance”) treats him like a stalker, when in fact, he is Gao’s husband. The scene is set up to look as if he’s there to borrow money, but turns out he only wants her to star in his upcoming “art house” project. The cacophony of English, Mandarin, and Shanghainese heard on the studio set proclaims China’s new status as a cosmopolitan filmmaking hub, but it also reinforces Wang’s exclusion from this commercial, high-rolling world.
With the protagonist’s hang-ups aptly established, the scene shifts to a village deep in the mountains of Sichuan province. Despite failing to secure investment or getting his wife to commit to a shooting schedule, Wang has decided to take a small crew to do field research on “The Tale of Darkness,” an ancient mourning song describing the genesis of heaven and earth, gods and mortals, and the cycles of life. Legend has it that anyone who reads the 5,000-word manuscript will go blind.
Local party official Luo (Yi Ping) offers to help Wang attend a live-performance of the song, still preserved as a funeral tradition in some obscure parts in the area. In just one night, during which Luo bossily forces Wang and his crew to down endless rounds of hard liquor, Zhang deftly reveals the personalities and motives of each character: savvy producer Ding Hongmin (Liu Dan); young actor Bai Jinbo (Yi Daqian), eager to prove himself; assistant director Du Chun (Li Xinran), who flirtily professes to be the director’s fan.
After promises by the county government to sponsor their project fall through, Luo invites himself to be a guide on their field trip, at the crew’s expense. Despite knowing that Luo is a self-important windbag who loves to reminisce about his heroic Long March days, the crew is at his mercy in his turf. As the group ventures headlong into the wilderness, personality clashes and existential anxieties surface as their urban backgrounds render them completely helpless. Sightings, whether real or imagined or real, of “Yeren” (a mythical Bigfoot-like entity indigenous to those woods) allude to the primitive impulses lurking beneath society’s veneer of civilization.
When they lose their way at the Hubei border, battered by rain and fumbling in the descending darkness, their troubles accentuate each protagonist’s individual frustrations, including Wang’s writer’s block, Ding’s inability to find investors, Bai’s insecurity about his role, and Du’s career uncertainties. This results in a collective impasse as a production team, although a turning point brings a new spiritual mood to the open ending.
As in his other films, sexual tensions are delicately evoked. Wang and Du’s body language tellingly seesaws between attraction and hesitation, but when she steps out of his shadow, her newfound confidence is demonstrated by a change in the way she holds the camera. Even more subtle is Wang’s encounter with a young widow Chun Tai (Zeng Meihuizi). Nothing actually happens, but the hints of longing — whether for physical, emotional comfort or escape from the constraints of country life (by local custom, women are forbidden to eat at the dining table) — are both sensuous and poignant. Underrated character actor Wang Xuebing (“A Fool,”) expresses Wang’s fraught moods without exaggerated impersonations of the artist’s overblown ego. Liu is entirely convincing as the severe producer who tries to stay sane in spite of all the unexpected crises.
Zhang claimed he chose the title because Pluto is illuminated by the sun, and this “weak luminosity” encapsulates the twilight phase in the protagonists’ lives. The fluid cinematography by Li Jinyang captures the primeval ambience of the locations with a greyish, dusky hue.