Inspired by a friendship with a young photographer, a middle-aged man living in Beijing reconnects with his estranged father in Zhang Lü's poignant drama.
“Are you a good guy, or a bad guy?” asks Smiley (Wang Yiwen), the adorable young daughter of Gu Wentong (Xin Baiqing), the middle-aged divorcee at the centre of Zhang Lü’s The Shadowless Tower. A failed poet-turned-food critic living in the cramped apartment he inherited from his mother, Gu’s life is in disarray, which is probably why his daughter is currently being taken care of by his sister Wenhui (Li Qinqin). He isn’t offended by his daughter’s question though, after all, he’s been asking it about his own father since he was five years-old.
Returning to the Berlinale competition for the first time since his 2007 film Desert Dream, Zhang’s The Shadowless Tower is a surprisingly deft and sensitive tale about coming to terms with the ghosts of your past. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment Gu’s life went downhill, but it probably has something to do with his absent father, who was sent to a labour camp after being accused of molestation; an event that cast a long shadow over Gu’s life. Masking his pain with alcohol, he spends his days reviewing restaurants in the Xicheng District of Beijing, alongside his spirited 25-year old photographer Ouyang Wenhui (Huang Yao). Ouyang is a refreshing antidote to Gu’s physicalised sadness, and the pair embark on a tentative romance. However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear she’s guarding some painful secrets of her own.
A perfectly paced and intricately structured film, The Shadowless Tower pulls off the intoxicating trick of making the world feel smaller and more intimate than it first appears. Zhang commendably never attempts to tug at the heartstrings, or manipulate his audience, instead focusing on seemingly banal details — like the poetry of Lu Xun and the films of Shangguan Yunzhu – and the recurrence of certain motifs like earthworms, red kites and ballroom dancing.
When Gu’s brother-in-law Li Ju (Wang Hongwei) informs Gu that his father is still alive, and living in the coastal town of Beidaihe – regularly cycling the 300 mile round-trip to Beijing to secretly see his family, Gu suddenly begins to reevaluate his role as both a father and as a son. It’s Ouyang who ultimately helps Gu bridge the divide with his father, her actions instigating their eventual reunion, but as the film progresses her melancholy comes to shape and steer the film as much as Gu’s, with the revelation that she once lived in Beidaihe adding an entirely new emotional configuration to the film.
Unlike recent Chinese dramas such as’ Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son, or Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, Zhang never attempts to make this portrait of individual depression into a larger drama about generational divisions and the conflict between tradition and modernity. That said, all the ingredients are here, including a drunken school reunion which breaks out into a melancholic karaoke rendition of ‘Beijing Welcomes You’, a song originally composed for the 2008 Olympics.
Instead Zhang favours the agonising intimacies of contemporary life over big themes and national metaphors, teasing minor-key emotional and psychological insights out of ostensibly mundane moments. A supremely confident piece of film-making, The Shadowless Tower is a wistful drama that suggests unlearning yourself is just as important as knowing yourself.
Published 20 Feb 2023
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