Venice 2021 review: Shen Kong (Chen Guan)

“Shen Kong is a film that reflects our current situation in a way that is haunting but cathartic.”

It is hardly a revolutionary opinion to say COVID-19 changed the way we both produce and consume art, particularly in a medium like cinema. Several filmmakers found themselves abandoning old standards, forced into adapting to a new set of challenges, facing the very likely possibility that their freedom of artistic expression would be stifled by the constraints caused by a pandemic. Chen Guan, in his captivating directorial debut, took a slightly different approach with Shen Kong, a wildly ambitious drama that ventures deep into the psychology of two ordinary individuals working their way through a near-apocalyptic cityscape by focusing on the smallest psychological details rather than the widespread impact. This city has undergone severe changes as a result of a widespread lockdown intended to keep people separate, in the hopes of stopping the spread of a virus. The film doesn’t directly refer to COVID-19 (instead referencing an unnamed virus that shares many of its traits), affording the director the artistic freedom to make use of a range of ideas without having to be concerned about whether he was offering an accurate depiction of life under current conditions. Shen Kong, which has been translated to the very apt Out of This World, is a fascinating journey into the minds of two people trying to make sense of a world they barely recognize anymore.

A simple but appropriate description of Shen Kong would be if Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy took place during a global pandemic, with almost the entire plot consisting of two characters (portrayed by Wei Ruguang and Deng Keyu) wandering barren streets looking for entertainment to distract them from reality, exploring a stagnant city to which they have only just become acclimated. The director constructs a moving tale of two people falling in love during unconventional circumstances, as the entire film looks into the roots of this growing relationship. It offers parallel perspectives on the same universal crisis and asks questions about the extent to which the quandaries we encounter are our own, and how much of these experiences are shared with others, which essentially led the protagonists to come together in the first place. Isolation is something most of us have grown accustomed to over the past year and a half, and Chen deals with the impact the pandemic made on a very personal level, where a single perspective in this film is metonymic with the global experience. In the most straightforward terms, Shen Kong functions as an uncomfortable reflection of the modern world, and the challenges faced by the entire population over the course of what is rapidly approaching two disquieting years.

The film isn’t structured around the complex details of the pandemic itself and how it changed life in general, but rather the impact it has made on the individual level. Formed around a growing love affair between two people, the film is all about finding hope and comfort against an uncertain future – and as romantic as some of the sequences between Li You and Xiao Xiao may appear, they’re the result of a relationship that was clearly not meant to last, but rather to serve as a way of filling the void these characters feel in their crippling loneliness. They are attempting to find poetry through pain, traversing the arid landscape of a formerly bustling metropolis that is little more than a ghost town now. The once-crowded streets are empty of nearly all signs of life, making it fertile ground for these lonely souls to come together and find the spark that exists between them. Shen Kong is not driven by plot so much as it is propelled by a specific tone and atmosphere which seeks to unnerve and provoke thought. This is garnered through several episodic moments in the lives of the two main characters as they navigate a variety of challenges, each depending on the other to be a source of motivation even when they are only a voice on the other side of a phone call. The camera captures the striking imagery, working as a third character as it follows these two lovers walking the desolate city streets and undergoing quite an intimidating metaphysical journey.

Shen Kong may be intentionally opaque at times, but it is rarely entirely vague in its message, laying out its intentions from the first moments. It is certainly an enigmatic film, and our impulse is to want to uncover these mysteries – but the film always keeps its distance, a purposeful choice that aids in the feelings of isolation that underpin the story. It is an eerie portrait of the present moment as the global population battles the restrictive conditions brought on by COVID-19, built on a simple story focused on the ebb and flow of a relationship born out of the desperation for human contact. We all depend on making connections that nourish our souls and make our situation seem less harsh, and Chen captures this perfectly with this intimate and visceral character study that may have its challenges in terms of telling the story but is constantly hinting at some deeper meaning below the film’s visceral exterior. A meandering, minimalist drama with a unique perspective on romance, building a love story through intimate details rather than broad strokes, Shen Kong is a film that reflects our current situation in a way that is haunting but cathartic. It is actively avoiding messages of widespread despair and fear, and instead looking into other psychological factors that we have seen become quite prominent as a result of the loneliness caused by this unprecedented pandemic. Few recent films have made as bold a statement on the state of the world as this provocative and profound psychological drama.