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.

Zhang Ming
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

  • Jennifer Lopez

    Jennifer Lopez 'Absolutely' Wants to Direct Film and Television

    Jennifer Lopez epitomizes the phrase “she’s done it all” — but there’s still more that the superstar would like to do. Lopez recently directed her first music video, “Limitless,” the track featured on her new rom-com “Second Act,” and it seems the multi-hyphenate has caught the directing bug. “Absolutely, absolutely,” Lopez responded when asked by [...]

  • Daniel Craig

    Rian Johnson's Murder Mystery 'Knives Out,' Starring Daniel Craig, Set for Thanksgiving Release

    Lionsgate has bought distribution rights to Daniel Craig’s murder mystery “Knives Out” and set a Thanksgiving release date of Nov. 27. MRC financed “Knives Out,” directed by Rian Johnson — best known for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Lionsgate will also distribute the pic worldwide. The movie came together during the Toronto International Film Festival [...]

  • The favourite Movie

    Olivia Colman to Be Honored by Palm Springs Festival for 'The Favourite'

    “The Favourite” star Olivia Colman will receive the Desert Palm Achievement Award by the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The award will be presented by her co-star Emma Stone at the festival’s awards gala on Jan. 3 at the Palm Springs Convention Center. The festival, now in its 30th year, runs from Jan. 3 to [...]

  • Oscars Oscar Academy Awards Placeholder

    Motion Pictures Academy Announces Scientific and Technical Awards

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced nine scientific and technical achievements, represented by 27 individual recipients, to be honored at the annual Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation Feb. 9 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. In addition, Curtis Clark will be receiving the John A. Bonner Award for his service [...]

  • Once Upon a Deadpool trailer

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Deadpool' Earns $1 Million on Wednesday

    Fox’s “Once Upon a Deadpool,” a reimagining of “Deadpool 2,” picked up an estimated $1 million from 1,566 theaters during Wednesday previews. In the PG-13 version, the Merc with a Mouth retells the heroic sequel as a bedtime story to Fred Savage a la “Princess Bride.” Because there aren’t clear comps, rival studios and industry [...]

  • Queen of Scots Hair and Makeup

    'Mary Queen of Scots' Hair, Makeup Artist Gave Substance and Style to Battling Queens

    Jenny Shircore has done the makeup and hair of several queens over the years: Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (she won an Oscar for the former) and Emily Blunt in “The Young Victoria.”  In fact, she had to be convinced to do it again for Saoirse Ronan’s Queen Mary and Margot Robbie’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content