German director Nele Wohlatz’s The Future Perfect addresses the increasingly complicated challenges of intercultural communication. Divided into three parts with each meant to correlate with the linguistic structure of past, present, and future, the film chronicles Xiaobin (Xiaobin Zhang), a Chinese teenager trying to learn enough Spanish to hold a job in Buenos Aires. The opening scenes represent Xiaobin’s failure on this front, as she cannot remember the names of deli meats well enough to handle cashier duties in her uncle’s supermarket. Wohlatz depicts Xiaobin’s ineptitudes as seeming flashbacks from the questions asked during an oral exam in a Spanish course. Thus, each successive line of questioning moves the narrative further into the future, until arriving at the titular tense. It’s an ingenious structuring device, one that Wohlatz utilizes for intriguing questions about the need to constantly reform the definition of culture, whether for interpersonal relationships or theorizing the contemporary state of global migration.
The film’s singularity of vision derives in part from its unusual (to cinema, at least) comingling of settings and characters. While cleaning her work area, Xiaobin meets Vijay (Saroj Kumar Malik), a local computer programmer who subsequently takes Xiaobin on a few dates and asks her to marry him. Wohlatz positions Vijay, who’s from India, less as an intense love interest for Xiaobin than another awkward soul whose stabs at a connection are exclusively routed through social channels of the public sphere, such as Facebook and a trip to the movies. Wohlatz dangles the possibility of conventional romance as bait for the viewer in order to disarm those very expectations. Not unlike the work of author Ottessa Moshfegh, whose collection of short stories Homesick for Another World deals exclusively in misfits grappling with their inability to adopt the shackles of social norms, The Future Perfect has the texture of a novella that keeps reworking the same idea in successively intricate ways.
While the difficulty of acquiring a new language looms over the film, Wohlatz keeps Xiaobin’s frustrations rooted in the impossibility of expression, reflected in the almost deadpan quality of Zhang’s performance. Tellingly, Wohlatz had Zhang screen several Buster Keaton films before production began on The Future Perfect, in order to impart how the lack of facial expression generates ambiguity. The choice to render Xiaobin a Keaton-esque figure of disillusion proves oddly humorous as a counterpoint to the forced silence that can result from cultural ignorance. Wohlatz finds Xiaobin’s anxiety without milking it for easy pathos; when she can’t read a restaurant’s menu and leaves in frustration, the scene is shot with a single, static take, neither negating Xiaobin’s embarrassment nor heightening the relatively harmless faux pas. Whereas a less considerate film would render the moment as a potential narrative turning point, it’s but another thread in Wohlatz’s thickening visual description of sociocultural isolation.
Wohlatz integrates story details through Xiaobin’s Spanish lessons so that her answers to exam questions double as narrative exposition. As Xiaobin tells it, her parents would likely disapprove of Vijay because he isn’t Chinese, which leads to a series of dramatized responses in which Xiaobin imagines various outcomes of her current relationship. Vacillating from assertive to violent to mournful, these psychological projections perform the same act as cinema itself, placing onto the screen that which once existed only in the mind and even recall Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu for their expression of the many lives women must lead in order to gain even a semblance of independence within patriarchal societies.
As the concluding sequence introduces the possibility of fantasy as a potential method of escape, the film ultimately suggests Xiaobin’s capacity for imagination as her energizing source of personal meaning. For Wohlatz, and The Future Perfect as a whole, the need for imaginative thinking extends beyond the realm of daydreams and into a radicalized reckoning with inequity of various sorts. And though language and its intricacies continues to trouble Xiaobin, she’s nonetheless on the right path toward adapting the empathetic demands of this complex new global landscape.