Berlinale 2023 review: Absence (Wu Lang)

“It’s not always a smooth combination, but it offers plenty of reasons to mark Wu as a distinctive new voice in world cinema.”

Expanding his short film of the same name, Chinese filmmaker Wu Lang makes a promising, visually inventive debut with Absence. Boosted by the presence of Lee Kang-Sheng (best-known for his frequent collaborations with legendary Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang) in front of the camera, this superbly shot and socially conscious drama should travel widely on the festival circuit following its high-profile Berlinale premiere in the characteristically adventurous Encounters section. While Tsai’s shadow looms large over the film’s aesthetics, particularly in its unhurried final third, Wu manages to find a unique voice for himself in this unusual combination of contemplative stillness and near-apocalyptic urban panorama. If the limited scope of its roots holds the film back in terms of storytelling, Wu’s vision and skill for image composition more than make up for the narrative shortcomings.

The title refers to the protagonist Han Jiangyu’s ten-year prison sentence and his tentative return to a society which has undergone major transformations in his absence. Upon his release, one of the first things that he does is to have a haircut, and while this may not seem like a particularly exciting celebration of regained freedom, his motives for this choice become clear without much delay. The hairdresser is a woman named Su Hong, Jiangyu’s old love, and the daughter she works so hard to provide for may well be his. The melodramatic potential of this set-up is obvious, but Wu’s approach is characterized by emotional restraint, and he distils the story to its most essential elements in many creative ways. The characters remain quiet for the most part, but small gestures and simple expressions reveal deep feelings or complex emotions effectively. Jiangyu and Su Hong reconnect over a series of brief, wordless encounters captured in unusual Dutch angles and unconventionally framed images. Their decision to get married is conveyed with a single, unexpectedly direct sentence, leading up to a lovely moment where a hesitant smile manages to convey both the joy and the insecurity of this reunion.

Su Hong’s decision to get married is partly attributable to her efforts to find stable housing for her daughter before she starts school. Marrying a local is a shortcut to securing a spot, but Jiangyu’s connection with a developer (whose father is said to be the reason why he spent time in prison) proves to be a complication in this regard. Through this subplot, Wu offers insightful commentary on the innumerable housing projects that have quickly come to dominate the Hainan cityscape. This urban center in Southern China is the most populous island in the country, and Wu’s portrayal is very successful in capturing that overcrowding aspect. Images of intimidating skyscrapers are seen everywhere in the film, from advertising photos on elevator doors to the landscapes that seem perpetually out of reach for the characters. Absence depicts Hainan as one giant construction site whose sad state is a far cry from the promise of comfort and luxury used to lure in new buyers. Incomplete structures, unreliable developers, and never-ending financial demands make the dream of owning a home almost impossible for people like Su Hong, even after they spend their life’s savings on an apartment in one of the countless tall buildings under construction. The inadequacy of urban planning results in the evolution of Hainan into a paradoxical ghost town, where hundreds of half-built and unoccupied buildings exist alongside millions of people in desperate need of housing. Wu makes these observations about the city without falling into the trap of didacticism, relying on haunting and increasingly eerie images of uninhabited spaces instead. While these richly textured visuals bring an almost hypnotic quality to the film, they also make its political or social layers less pointed and impactful than they could be. Absence shifts gears and turns into a highly stylized representation of urban decay in its closing section. The three main characters become wanderers in a dreamlike terrain of rotting ruins, the story loses track of the things that bring them together, and the film’s socio-political dimension gets frustratingly opaque. There is something poignant in the way Jiangyu attempts to find something organic or alive in the midst of all the derelict concrete around him, but this seems like a tonal and narrative rupture rather than a fully earned development in the protagonist’s journey.

The social and cultural cost of China’s extremely rapid urbanization, particularly with the influx of global capital, has been a favourite theme of several notable filmmakers in the past. Chief among them is Jia Zhangke, whose work has chronicled this transformation from various angles for more than twenty years. Another significant point of reference is Li Ruijun’s immensely moving Return to Dust (Yin Ru Chen Yan, 2022), which was one of the highlights of last year’s Berlinale competition. Absence is a noteworthy addition to this roster of films, especially since it approaches these themes with the tactile and contemplative qualities of a Tsai Ming-Liang picture. It’s not always a smooth combination (the same indebtedness to Tsai sometimes gets in the way of the film’s key thematic preoccupations), but it offers plenty of reasons to mark Wu as a distinctive new voice in world cinema.