The one-page press notes for Zhu Wen’s South of the Clouds talks about a film that I’m not exactly sure I saw on the big screen: A middle-aged man named Xu Daqin (Li Xuejian) goes to Yunman, a province near Tibet, and imagines how different his life might have been had he lived there and not stayed north after getting married. Yes, Xu goes to Yunman, but I missed the part about the man’s motivations for the trip, or the details of the life-long resentments leading up to this moment (his wife is never mentioned or seen in the film, and as such it’s presumed that she’s dead). A lethargic mood piece, South of the Clouds is all subtext, which might explain why the production company’s synopsis for the film is loaded with information that simply cannot be gleaned by anything that transpires on screen. Sixty-year-old Xu is perpetually depressed, and his relationship to his daughter—who wants to open an exercise center but can’t get her father to front her the cash—is friendly but awkward. Why Xu is so glum and impatient when it comes to his daughter is uncertain, and his trip to Yunman seems to have less to do with any lifelong baggage than the recent death of his best friend, whose funny workout regiments intermittingly interrupt the glacial flow of the film’s first half. South of the Clouds seems to exist only to satisfy its maker, which wouldn’t be so bad if Wen didn’t actually confuse banality for surrealism. Once in Yunman, Xu visits a factory he used to work at, smokes a cigarette in a park, sporadically has conversations with a hotel cook and a man hired by his daughter’s boyfriend to drive him around, and innocently gets involved with a prostitute and ends up in police custody. Who this gentleman is or why he does much of anything, I’m not exactly sure; in fact, I’m not sure this film even knows itself. Save for a funny scene inside a massage parlor, the lovely visual transition that cues Xu’s arrival in Yunman, and an even lovelier last shot, South of the Clouds is as hermetic as Xu’s dream sequences.
- 100 min
- Zhu Wen
- Zhu Wen
- Li Xuejian, Jin Zi
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