The Pluto Moment
China, 2018, colour, 2.35:1, 110 mins.
Director: Zhang Ming 章明.
Nebulous, inconsequential tale of a director seeking inspiration extends to the film itself.
Shanghai, the present day. Independent film director Wang Zhun (Wang Xuebing) visits his ex-wife, actress Gao Li (Muqi Miya), during a night shoot on an action movie to ask her to be in his new art film. She wants to help but she’s next been offered a horror movie and Wang Zhun still can’t confirm his shooting dates because of script and financing problems. Some time later, he and his core team – producer Ding Hongmin (Liu Dan), assistant director Du Chun (Li Xinran) and keen young actor Bai Jinbo (Yi Daqian) – are scouting locations in Yudong county, a mountainous region in Sichuan near the border with two other provinces. Wang Zhun is still no closer to finishing his screenplay but is hoping to get some inspiration from the location. At a peasant’s house, Wang Zhun is shown a rare copy of Tale of Darkness 黑暗传, the traditional mourning song by which his film is inspired. Reading it is popularly supposed to make you go blind. That evening the crew is required to wine and dine some local officials in the hope of gaining sponsorship for the film. Wang Zhun demurs, and Ding Hongmin toasts on his behalf. Following the heavy drinking, Du Chun, who has been having stomach pains, leaves during the night and cannot be found. Next day Wang Zhun hears the film will not be getting any local official sponsorship, and the cost of their current accommodation and guide’s expenses will also not be covered. The guide, Luo (Yi Ping), suggests they continue as planned, with Wang Zhun and Ding Hongmin sharing his expenses. Luo tracks down Du Chun and has a quiet chat with her in town. Then everyone sets off to a village where Tale of Darkness is still occasionally performed. After being stranded when their minivan is unable to cross a river, they wait for hours for transport to arrive from the village. Finally, they decide to walk, with Luo taking them on a shortcut through a heavily wooded area. As rain and darkness fall, they shelter for the night in the home of a peasant. During the night, while going to the toilet, Bai Jinbo claims he saw the yeren 野人, a giant ape reputed to stalk the area. Next day, en route, Du Chun tells Wang Zhun the cause of her stomach pains. Later, they finally reach the village and spend the night in locals’ houses. Staying apart from the others, Wang Zhun finds a young widow, Chuntai (Zeng Meihuizi), takes a special liking to him.
Indie Mainland director Zhang Ming 章明, 57, once again slips off the wagon with The Pluto Moment 冥王星时刻, a nebulous, inconsequential tale centred on an arty film-maker with writer’s block traipsing round the Sichuan countryside with some key crew. After making his name on the festival circuit with the atmospheric In Expectation 巫山云雨(1996, aka Stormclouds over Wushan), set around the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, Zhang failed to build on that film’s promise with the over-arty Weekend Plot 秘语十七小时 (2001) and Before Born 结果 (2005). After bouncing back with Folk Songs Singing 郎在对门唱山歌 (2011) and China Affair 她们的名字叫红 (2013), both of which managed to reach out to an audience while retaining a personal style, Zhang reverts again to the slow-cooking that’s all fragrance and no nourishment, and a script that seems to have been jotted down on the train. Shot during the second half of 2016, it was finally released in late 2018, grossing just over RMB500,000 (weak, even for an art movie in the Mainland).
Pluto gives credence to the dictum that, when an auteur film-maker runs out of inspiration, he makes a film about an auteur film-maker who’s run out of inspiration. Though the idea for Pluto was partly autobiographical, the film is not quite as self-indulgent as Weekend or Born, but at times it comes close. What saves it are interesting performances by leads Wang Xuebing 王学兵 and Liu Dan 刘丹 as the vacillating director and his unflappable producer, and some evocative widescreen photography (by Li Jinyang 李锦阳, a camera operator on Ex-Files 2: The Backup Strikes Back 前任2 备胎反击战, 2015) of the wild countryside around Zhang’s native Chongqing, including his favourite Wushan.
As was proved by Cherry Goddess 9号女神 (2014) – starring young actress Lv Xingchen 吕星辰, the revelation of Folk Songs Singing – Zhang can make a full-on, commercial youth romance when he wants to, so the style of Pluto is clearly a conscious choice. More’s the pity, then, that it just doesn’t work in dramatic terms. The central character, indie film-maker Wang Zhun (Wang), is immediately established in the first scene as an outsider when he visits his actress ex-wife (Mainland yoga celebrity Muqimiya 母其弥雅, KungFu Yoga 功夫瑜伽, 2017) on the night shoot of an action movie and ends up insulting the pompous director. When she can’t commit to his new film, as he hasn’t even finished the script or financing, he goes off with his producer, assistant director and young wannabe actor to scout locations, raise some local money and hopefully get some inspiration.
Pluto has an insider’s authenticity of the drudgery of setting up a film, the endless hanging around, and the small tensions, suspicions and irritations that can develop. But those alone don’t make a movie, especially for anyone outside the business. The characters could have been the basis for a solid film, but Zhang and his co-writer Gong Yuxi 龚竽溪 – daughter of theatre/TV actress Gong Lijun 龚丽君, who was in a TVD Zhang directed back in 1996 – don’t seem able to develop a lead the viewer can identify with, or at least understand. The dialogue is perfunctory and self-reflexive, more suitable for an industry satire: “Director, why are you making a film based on Tale of Darkness?” “Because I am always in the darkness.” “Really? I’ve never understood your films, though I like them a lot!”
Wang Zhun remains a blurry, self-obsessed “artist” who expects his producer to cater to his every procrastination, his cute assistant to flirt with his genius, and a young wannabe actor to tag along in hope of the leading role. As an experienced character actor, Wang gives him some exterior flavour but, because of the feeble script, no internal depth. It’s not enough to hang an almost two-hour movie on.
The moments of subtlety come almost entirely from the female cast, led by Liu (the mother in What’s in the Darkness 黑处有什么, 2015; the lead in Night Train 夜车, 2007) as the patient producer and younger Chongqing-born Li Xinran 李心然 (The Grass in Wind 将离草, 2015) as the flirty assistant who finally tires of her role. There are also subtle hints in Muqimiya’s performance that, like the other women in his life, she knows exactly what Wang Zhun is like and is thankful not to be able to commit to his woolly project. But the most subtle moments come in the film’s final sections from Guizhou-born actress Zeng Meihuizi 曾美慧孜, 30, as a young widow who oozes a repressed liking for the “glamorous” visitor to her remote village. Along with the crafty old guide played by Yi Ping 易平, hers is the most interesting performance.
The title refers to the dim moment of inspiration that some artists (including, it seems, Zhang himself) have.
Presented by iQiyi Motion Pictures (CN), Way Good Entertainment (CN), Yung Park Culture(CN). Produced by iQiyi Motion Pictures (CN), Way Good Entertainment (CN), Yung Park Culture(CN).
Script: Zhang Ming, Gong Yuxi. Photography: Li Jinyang. Editing: Li Jin. Music: Chen Guo. Art direction: Wang Daxiong. Sound: Sun Xiaogang.
Cast: Wang Xuebing (Wang Zhun), Liu Dan (Ding Hongmin), Zeng Meihuizi (Chuntai), Muqimiya (Gao Li), Yi Daqian (Bai Jinbo), Yi Ping (Luo), Li Xinran (Du Chun/Duo Chun), Feng Jiamei, Wu Tiange, Dong Daqing.
Premiere: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight), 16 May 2018.
Release: China, 7 Dec 2018.