After recently watching and raving about Still Life and Up the Yangtze, I was skeptical about finding something new and interesting n yet another movie set in one of the villages that is soon to be submerged in service of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In a way, this is reminiscent of those films in that like both of those films, here again, we have parallel narratives where we follow three different protagonists. Initially, we are introduced Mai Qiang, a somewhat naive and lonely signal operator who is being visited by his more worldly friend, Ma Bing and his female friend Li Li. The beginning of the film is just these three people spending time at the isolated signal station, watching television even though there doesn’t really seem to be anything to watch and trying to come up with ways to spend time. The pace is desultory and sluggish but it didn’t bother me at all. I felt like it perfectly captured the way time seems to have come to a standstill in that town and the sense that everybody is just waiting for something that is about to happen (the flooding of the village in this case, I suppose). Then suddenly we go from these mostly indoor scenes to the outside world and get introduced to a single mother who works at a hotel in a nearby town. She is contemplating marriage and ends her affair with her boss which obviously doesn’t leave him very happy. Somehow, out of seemingly no plot, a story starts to emerge and we finally meet the third protgonist, namely a cop, who comes in to investigate an alleged rape.
Zhang Ming just seems to have this amazing ability to paint this really vivid and intimate portrait of these people’s lives in a really economic way. We don’t get any backstory nor do we hear much exchange of dialogue but somehow the quiet desperation with which these people are living their lives comes across so clearly. In that sense, this movie felt like the antithesis of A Single Spark. Here, the director seems to almost want to avoid telling us what to think to an extent where I think some people may find the pace too slow or conclude that nothing really happens in this movie. I didn’t feel that way at all. I found it incredibly powerful and tragic and poignant. The performances are all really good especially Xianmin Zhang who plays Mai Qiang and Ping Zhang, who plays the hotel receptionist.