Cannes 2021 review: Ripples of Life (Wei Shujun)

Writer-director Wei Shujun is not a stranger to the Cannes Film Festival. Back in 2018 Wei’s short film On the Border won the Special Jury Distinction award. Last year, Wei’s feature film debut was included as part of Cannes’ 2020 Official Selection. Wei is back this year with his third Cannes outing, Ripples of Life, which premiered in the festival’s sidebar section, Director’s Fortnight.

Part philosophical treatise, part satire, Ripples of Life follows the adventures of a production crew – from their initial arrival at Yong’an to the day before the shoot. The film is divided into three chapters. The first chapter revolves around Gu, a young restaurateur who caters to the production crew. Gu is bored with the everyday monotony of motherhood. When one of the crew members discovers Gu (“you have a real cinema face” he chimes in, and even compares her to South Korean movie star Kim Min-hee) and recruits her as a test model for the costume designs, Gu’s fantasies of becoming a movie star come alive. She puts on a fancy trench coat and nice sunglasses and plays pretend in the mirror.

The second chapter picks up where Gu’s story ends: the film’s leading lady Chen Chen comes into town to prepare for the shoot and steals the attention from everyone, including Gu, who is brought down to earth when she is asked to perform a demo in front of Chen and a pack of journalists and photographers. It is easy to understand why the local press adores Chen. Chen’s arrival in Yong’an is a classic homecoming story: the successful actress who grew up in a rural village returns to her modest hometown roots. But fame, as the old saying goes, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. At first Chen is excited about returning home. Now an established movie star, Chen yearns for her old life in Yong’an, when life was much simpler. But the Yong’an Chen returns to is not the Yong’an she remembers from her past. The inhabitants of the rural village no longer treat Chen as a former neighbor, friend, or peer, but as a celebrity who could pull strings on their behalf.

The third chapter is essentially a two-hander between the film’s screenwriter and director. The film they are about to make is called Ripples of Life. As the screenwriter explains to a fellow crew member in the first chapter, the title is supposed to symbolize the inertia of life: when you cast a stone into a pond, its ripples spread outwards but the surface eventually reverts back to stillness. The screenwriter’s earnest attempt to convey this inertia of time and place (“nothing ever happens in Yong’an… time is frozen”) is at odds with the director’s insistence on making the characters more action-oriented (“even unrequited love needs to have a bit of action, doesn’t it?”).

As the countdown to production begins and the clock is ticking for a final shooting script revision, the two men battle it out and debate every cinematic hot-button topic known to man – this includes fighting through ruminations on the purpose of art (films as entertainment vs. films as offering something deeper than pleasure), the purpose of the camera (film as an objective chronicler of life vs. film as a subjective account of life), and the purpose of a screenplay (the director views the screenplay as a vehicle for imagery, not a vessel to “translate every word into cinema”).

Now admittedly, all of the aforementioned topics are very intellectually stimulating. But these ideas are much more stimulating on paper than on screen. Although there are funny jabs provided at times (the screenwriter accuses the director of using this film project to salvage his reputation as a sexist storyteller), I cannot help but think that Ripples of Life’s third act proves the director’s points correct. His observation that cinema should be action-oriented is a good argument as to why the first two sections of this film are more compelling than the last third. Ripples of Life’s relatively tepid denouement makes me yearn for Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, another meta-treatise about filmmaking, that satirically unravels in an old-fashioned violent climax.

Nevertheless, Wei succeeds in two of the three vignettes. This is not a bad batting average, certainly not for a 30-year-old filmmaker who is on the rise and still finding his voice as a storyteller.