NYFF: Notes on The Calming
As with my first film of NYFF58, Nicolas Pereda’s film Fauna, my 2nd film, The Calming, is the first I've watched by Chinese director Fang Song. The Calming is only Fang Song's second narrative feature, after 2012's Memories Look at Me. The Calming premiered at Berlin in February and made its American premiere at the New York Film Festival
The Calming is a hard movie to assess. Its title is accurate--it's a meditative movie that follows a documentary filmmaker, Lin, as she travel to show her film, visits with friends, spends time in her apartment, and visits with her parents. The only moment of "dramatic" importance happens before the movie even starts--she has split with her boyfriend. She reveals very little about her feelings about this event. At one point she tells an old friend that she'd rather not talk about it. Later on she cries during an unseen operatic performance, though whether this is because she is simply moved by the music or because it releases emotions regarding the break-up is never made clear.
This refusal to reveal any emotions of our main character, Lin, makes The Calming difficult to dig into. It's a beautiful movie, with gorgeous shots of the snow-covered Japanese countryside, where the movie starts, China out the windows of the train our protagonist travels on, and balcony views from Hong Kong high rises. But the movie looks to be shot on digital video and it has that slightly high-frame rate, low grain look of video that makes these beautiful shots seem like they lack depth. Likewise, it's hard to see what, if anything, is going on below the surface of Lin's mostly expressionless face. Of course, the lack of explanation or motivation is at the heart of many great art films. But at their best, those films give us hints of something more complex below the surface, and when the characters do show us something, no matter how small, the moment seems huge. But other than her tears at the concert, Lin gives us nothing, and seems connected to very little. Even her documentary, about trees and nature doesn't seem to be especially important to her as a human being. Only when she wanders a park near the end of the movie with her parents, do we begin to get a sense that she is connected to the world around her in any meaningful way. While the challenge of digging into this type of character is one of the wonderful enticements of art films, sometimes it seems like there is nothing there to dig for.
Which brings us back to the surface, and the beautiful images. The Calming is meditative, like a guided screen saver tour, or the 10-hour YouTube videos of waterfalls, running rivers, and gently lapping seashores. So relax and enjoy the view, but don't expect a lot more than the peace and calm of Lin's mostly gentle journey.