×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Review: ‘The Pluto Moment’

Writer-director Zhang Ming's elegiac inner journey ponders life, death, and the filmmaker’s creative process.

Director:
Zhang Ming
With:
Wang Xuebing, Liu Dan

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.

Review: 'The Pluto Moment'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight), May 16, 2018. Running time: 110 MIN. (Original title: “Ming Huang Xing Shi Ke”)

Production: (China) An iQiyi Motion Pictures, Way Good Entertainment Co., Yung Park Culture Co. presentation production. (International sales: Loco Films, Paris.) Producer: Shen Yang. Executive producers: Gong Yu, Zhang Xiang, Ma Jun. Co-producer: Song Jia, Zhu Dan.

Crew: Director, writer: Zhang Ming. Camera (Color): Li Jinyang. Editor: Li Jin. Music: Chen Guo.

With: Wang Xuebing, Liu Dan, Li Xinran, Yi Ping, Yi Daqian, Zeng Meihuizi, Miya.

More Film

  • And Then We Danced

    Swedish Outfit French Quarter Steps Into TV With Graphic Novel Adaptation

    Swedish production company French Quarter, the outfit behind Cannes Directors’ Fortnight’s entry “And Then We Danced,” is venturing into TV with a web series adapted from Henrik Bromander’s graphic novel “Kurs I självutplåning” (“Course in self-annihilation”). The comedy series has been commissioned by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, as first reported by Nordic Film & TV [...]

  • Mindy Kaling (L) and Director Nisha

    Women Directors and Writers Make Gains in Independent Films But Lag on Parity

    Women directors, writers, editors and producers are making inroads, reaching historic highs in the world of independent films — while still lagging in reaching parity with men, a new study shows. The latest Indie Women study, released Tuesday, found that women achieved record-setting levels as directors (33% in 2018-19, up from 29% in 2017-18), writers [...]

  • David Shin

    Disney Shuffles Management in Hong Kong, Australia

    Disney has reshuffled its management in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australasia following the March completion of its 21st Century Fox takeover. In Hong Kong and New Zealand, Fox executives have been elevated. In Australia and New Zealand, Disney’s management is staying on. David Shin has been appointed VP and GM of The Walt Disney Company [...]

  • SHANGHAI, CHINA - JUNE 17: Liu

    Shanghai: Chinese Movies Dominate AACTA Asian Film Award Nominations

    Chinese sci-fi hit “The Wandering Earth,” China’s Cannes competition film “Wild Goose Lake,” and Korea’s Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite” are among the nominees for the AACTA Award for best Asian film. The nominees were announced on the margins of the Shanghai International Film Festival. The winners will be announced Dec. 4 at the Australian Academy of [...]

  • Jenni Rivera Biopic

    Authorized Jenni Rivera Biopic in the Works

    An authorized biopic of the late singer Jenni Rivera is in the works, seven years after she died in a plane crash at the age of 43. The life rights deal was announced Tuesday with an agreement between Jenni Rivera Enterprises and producers Javier Chapa and Simon Wise of Mucho Mas Media and Donald De [...]

  • Judi Dench

    ‘Blithe Spirit’ With Judi Dench, Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher Scores International Sales

    Filming has started on “Blithe Spirit,” an adaptation of Noel Coward’s classic comedy about love that just won’t die. Judi Dench, Isla Fisher and Dan Stevens are among the cast in the picture, which is helmed by Edward Hall (“Downton Abbey”). Protagonist has closed a raft of pre-sales on the project, which was previously adapted [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content