May 30, 2024

ohout of anxiety and chaos, Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye has created something mysterious, moving and even profound – a kind of multi-layered docu-realist film, apparently inspired by a real situation in film production. As much as everything else, the film meditates on what it means to be “unfinished.” Very few of us will leave this life with a satisfied sense of all that has been accomplished, completed, completed. To be mortal is to feel that things have ended without being finished. This is possibly his best film since the brave Tiananmen Square drama Summer Palace from 2006 – and located near Wuhan, the city in which she 2012 film Mystery was set in the days when that place was internationally famous – if at all – simply because it was almost frighteningly large and impersonal.

It’s 2019 and a film director and his crew gather in a production studio and excitedly unpack a large 00s-era computer, which contains the digitized video and audio files for a film he had to abandon 10 years earlier – without to have a title first – because he refused to bow to his producers’ demands to tone down the content. It is a story of a gay man’s passion for another man who is involved with someone else. Getting the unfinished film now is clearly the end result of legal wrangling. (Lou apparently had access to genuine footage from a real production.)

The director watches the footage and is fascinated and a little amazed (as we all might be on 10-year-old videos) by how young everyone looks. But he’s fueled by a new plan (something like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood , perhaps, though no one mentions that comparison). Why not round out the cast and create a second act, starting a decade in which its hero is now a bit of a sellout and works as a real estate agent? This lead actor, now married with a baby and in need of more steady and lucrative work than that, needs some persuasion. But he does agree, and the team begins with great excitement this ingenious new project in which the stigma of being unfinished must be triumphantly washed away.

Then Covid-19 and the brutally imposed lockdown crush their work, confining most of the crew to their hotel. Incredibly, their film is going to be unfinished all over again. But now its incompleteness reaches a tragic new dimension; their work and their lives, like the whole country (and the whole world), are put on indefinite pause and almost certainly suffer permanent damage. They live through the great Unfinished, the terrible disruption of our lives, whose steady progress has always been accepted.

At first, An Unfinished Film looks like a wry, politically sophisticated comedy about Chinese media. As the pandemic begins to be more than just a panicked rumor, it looks more like a zombie apocalypse movie. As the closing hits, and Lou uses more and more split screens and footage from smartphone screens, The Unfinished Film looks like a tense, intimate drama. Then, as he uses more and more candid (and terrifying) smartphone footage from Wuhan, it evolves into a passionate documentary tribute to an entire nation’s trauma. One of the most moving moments comes when the lead actor has to talk to his deeply frightened wife over a video call, with their baby sleeping next to her, and the situation forces him to tell her he loves her in a way which he never had—partly because of unspoken fears of death and partly because their separation created a formalized urgency for their communication.

The director feels that leaving the film unfinished has a new kind of rigor and integrity—a solidarity with the truncation they’ve all lived through. This is an extremely unique and very important movie about Covid, the crisis that has affected us all.

An unfinished film shown at the Cannes Film Festival

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