An adaptation of the 2021 short of the same name, Absence is the debut feature from Chinese director Wu Lang and tells a story of an unspoken past against a backdrop of contemporary urban disarray. It screens this Friday 31st March as part of the East Asia Film Festival (EAFFI) at the Irish Film Institute (IFI).
Having just been released from a gruelling ten-year prison sentence, Han Jiang Yu (Lee Kang-Sheng) returns to the picturesque Island of Hainan. He celebrates with a mixture of karaoke and freshly cooked lobster (long Xia). In what should be an excruciating image to witness, we see a lobster being cooked alive. The first of numerous visual representations of animal suffering that audiences will see throughout. After a timid celebration of his rediscovered freedom, Jiang Yu visits a small barbershop to receive a cheap 15 yuan haircut. Meeting hairdresser Su Hong (played by Li Meng), we quickly understand the significance that these two have had in each other’s past lives.
Several events are set in place from different interweaving directions. Jiang Yu is now working for his wealthy friend Kai, whose industrial tycoon father is likely the reason why Jiang Yu spent 10 years in prison. Kai works on a set of urban redevelopment plans and is in charge of finishing a massive set of incomplete buildings which are—intended at least—to be used for housing Hainan residents. Many residents have put down deposits to evade precarious housing situations and are desperate for some degree of certainty as to when construction will end and living can begin. Significantly, one of these desperate families is Su Hong and her daughter Yao Yao (Liang Wanling). In a bid to secure every possible chance of landing a permanent home, Su Hong proposes marriage to her old lover Jiang Yu and he duly accepts. This seems more of a marriage of convenience—or even necessity—but audiences are mostly left in the dark as to the married couple’s true romantic feelings. Despite this big step, things take a turn for the worse when Kai’s plan for finishing the new residential buildings falls by the wayside. Jiang Yu is out of work while Su Hong is in danger of losing her housing deposit. Times are desperate in a manner that will hit home for many an Irish audience.
Director Wu Lang has described Hainan as a city which is very ‘close to the sky.’ Having spent over a decade of his life in the Island, he is aware not only of its beauty but also of its rapid modernisation. He applies this knowledge to visually capture these transformations with stunning results. Many shots are inventive, on the one hand using the camera to achieve a sense of claustrophobic tightness, while on the other using it to arrest audiences’ attention with a sense of towering scale. The contrast here is in the humility of the residents and the inertia of the capitalist greed which has engulfed the Island and contemporary China more broadly. There is a strong sense of coldness and disconnect throughout several scenes. While dialogue is often minimal, it is this coldness that the script manages to capture so well. Referring to our aforementioned lobster, Jiang Yu at one point questions Kai whether the latter thinks that lobsters have souls. The response is blunt and instinctive. That lobsters don’t have souls because they are for eating. And that only humans have souls. Further down the line, we see Jiang Yu again encounter a group of goats cramped into the back of a pick up truck. Upon seeing our protagonist playfully interact with these goats, the driver’s only response is to ask Jiang Yu whether he wants to buy one. The point, made persistently but subtly, relates to how everything around the character’s lives is a tool for impulsive human consumption.
In spite of these repeatedly well made points, there is indeed something that feels absent from what could have been an even more impressive feature debut from Wu Lang. The relationship between Jiang Yu and Su Hong feels under probed. There are back and forth indications about their past but never quite enough for the film to have the emotional impact that it so very nearly achieves. A lot of facial expressions—whether feeble or enthusiastic—do a great job of telling us about how our main characters are feeling. But so much of what makes this story compelling is left in the past. This potentially will leave some audiences wanting more background that could justify inform their emotional investment. This is not so much a failure but rather an acknowledgement of what could have been a more engaging outing.
Absence will not make the heart grow fonder. It will hit home with uncomfortable realities that undeniably obscure the more romanticised narrative that could have made for a far different story. Perhaps this is the director’s goal. In any event, Wu Lang himself is one to watch going forward.