Sometimes when you look out of an airplane window during a long-haul flight you get a view like the God’s-eye imagery that occasionally punctuates Argentinian filmmaker Juan Cabral’s intriguing debut: a dark, curved horizon rimmed with the glimmer of a new dawn. “Two/One,” the celebrated advertising director’s first full-length feature, seems born of this lofty, sleep-deprived perspective.
Two men, strangers to one another and living on opposites sides of the planet, share a yin-and-yang-like connection through cycles of sleep and wakefulness. But this immaculately built film (the level of craft is not, perhaps, unexpected given Cabral’s background as the director of the Cadbury’s “Gorilla” spot and the famous Sony Bravia “Balls” ad), is most remarkable for the warm, intensely real-feeling observation of these two different but gently echoing lives. For all the vaguely New-Age-y philosophy that underpins the movie, “Two/One” is lovely to look at, engagingly humane and surprisingly down to earth, at least until Cabral’s script lapses into overdetermination later on and the subtle magic fizzles out in a fog of tediously unanswerable practicalities.
Kaden (Boyd Holbrook) is a Canadian professional ski-jumper, staring down the barrel of career obsolescence at 35 years old; Khai (Song Yang) is a successful executive living an atomized, alienated life in corporate Shanghai. Kaden’s ex-girlfriend Martha (Dominique McElligott), now married with a kid, gets in touch with him one day and they strike up an affair. Meanwhile, professionally slick but socially awkward Khai tentatively approaches new co-worker Jia (Zhu Zhu), whom he recognizes from the internet revenge-porn site he uses as masturbation material. Kaden’s father (Beau Bridges) suddenly decides to divorce his mother after decades of marriage; Khai’s widower Dad (Gabriel Tsai) confesses to his son that on the day of his wedding he felt “like the loneliest man in the world.” And as Kaden makes a Hail Mary bid for selection for the ski-jumping world championships in Sapporo, Khai lands an important account at work and is sent to Japan to present to the new clients.
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Neither storyline feels schematic or contrived to make the parallels explicit, but as Cabral cuts between the unusually well-balanced diptych — often prompted by Kaden falling asleep in Vancouver at the same moment Khai wakes up in Shanghai and vice versa — unbeknownst to them, there is a subtle but strangely soothing call-and-response pattern bouncing back and forth between these two characters as they experience similar bouts of thirtysomething disaffection. To be sure, the existential angst they share is distinctly a first world problem, but Cabral handles it sensitively and not without a sense of humor.
DP Larry Smith’s pellucid, crisp yet dreamlike photography is an immersive pleasure and the clever scoring, from Nicolas Barry and Tomas Jacobi, both smoothes the transitions and differentiates between the two strands. And with both actors inhabiting their offbeat characters’ oddities and anxieties with grace and empathy, it is easy to care for them, and to invest in the potential for mutual comfort that their surreal connection suggests.
A firework explodes in Shanghai; a shower of sparks rains down in Vancouver. A ladybird creeps along a dashboard after Kaden and Martha have sex in the car; another alights on the sofa after Khai and Jia make love. Kaden’s candid photo in the paper prompts Martha to call him after years of radio silence; Jia’s intimate photographs connect her with Khai, in ways both exciting and exploitative. These trans-global resonances work well when they remain in this kind of subtle, pick-up-on-it-if-you-like register, when we’re allowed to judge for ourselves just how literally to take the sleeping/waking device.
But disappointingly, as though Cabral suddenly loses faith in the more allusive and evocative film he’s been making to that point, “Two/One” takes an abrupt turn in its last third, after the characters are finally brought together, and their tender and possibly imaginary connection is revealed to be as direct and binary as a light switch flicking on and off. As soon as the connection is so defined, an enormous amount of the film’s pent-up energy is expended in repetitive and faintly ridiculous cross-cutting — one man waking while the other nods off narcoleptically.
Questions and quandaries that were easy to ignore before become irksome, the most obvious being that nobody — certainly not fit, active men in their mid-thirties — is awake for exactly half the day, so which of them is sleeping for 16 hours at a time? And with a final extra turn that attempts to apply this same pattern of unseen mystical connection to other characters, and, by inference, to the whole world, “Two/One” fatally overreaches, becoming the rare example of an exceptionally well-made film, from an undeniably talented filmmaker, in which everything works beautifully except the central premise, which doesn’t work at all.