Director Song Fang’s sophomore feature is both sumptuous and stark — it revels in the mundane and finds beauty in the simplicity of train rides and restaurant eavesdropping. Light on dialogue, plot, conflict, and the more typical staples of a standard screenplay, The Calming instead seeks its own universes in snow-capped landscapes and the silences that punctuate the ends of sentences. Following a filmmaker on a journey of quiet self-discovery post-breakup, running parallel to the exhibition of her most recent work, the pensive artist placidly traverses China, Japan, and Hong Kong. She meets up with fellow artists and reconnects with friends, presenting her work, visiting her parents, and simply luxuriating in her own company, while allowing us to join alongside her on her meditative excursions.
While showcasing her latest film in Japan, director Lin (Qi Xi) engages with colleagues, acquaintances, and herself, as she concurrently explores the country, from gazing at winter wonderland-esque villages on the train, observing a bird take flight from a whitened fir, wandering around a museum and strolling the snowy streets. At one point, she briefly reveals to a friend over a meal that she and her boyfriend have recently called it quits. After Japan, she returns home to China where she continues her similar path of quiet, kinetic contemplation, through restaurants, city streets, lush gardens and rolling hills, eventually linking up with an old friend, her friend’s husband, and their child, whom she had previously never met. Meanwhile, she also spends time with her aging parents, as her father has been ailing in particular as of late. With no real plot or defined narrative, the film simply lingers on Lin; the paths she takes and the conversations she has, examining the beauty of simple existence while allowing one to ponder the mysteries that must surround her psyche.
Through a steady camera and an emphasis on space, emotional conflict is examined with a distance to the subject that creates its own kind of intimacy. The Calming wants us to focus on what isn’t said rather than what is, and on the stillness we exhibit externally as we process our emotions. We never truly know what Lin is thinking — only observing her actions and conversations with others, which rarely (if ever) touch upon her breakup or her family. She frequently discusses her work and other facets of her life; she gazes, seemingly lost in thought, out of train windows, looking out onto varying sceneries; she embraces the silences that naturally fill up everyday conversation, never eager to replace them with words that don’t need to be said. Indeed, the film has a vast appreciation for life’s little silences, and there are often long stretches of time where no dialogue is spoken whatsoever. To say that the film is about a break-up or ailing parents is to overstate its narrative thrust, which is less of a story and more of a feeling. Though undoubtedly Lin must be struggling with some form of internal grief, it’s not really about her. It’s about her environment, her relationship to it, and where she fits as she exists within in, her own unseen landscapes filling a space shared in the vastness of planet earth.
At one point, an audience member during the Q&A portion of one of Lin’s film showings questions why she chose to present her film in a theater as opposed to an art gallery, where he feels the film would be better suited. Lin replies that theatrical exhibition simply provides the more immersive experience she wants for her film that an art gallery cannot. The question and answer are, of course, quite relevant to the film we are watching as well — less a narrative feature than a kind of ASMR art installation. Indeed, I am inclined to wholly agree with Lin — I can only imagine what it must be like to get to experience this film in a theater (and during this time of virtual film festivals, I was, ironically, forced to watch it on my laptop), the giant screen coloured end to end with sparkling white snow, the sound of leaves rustling and chopsticks clicking against a plate filling the room. Reflected in its very title,The Calming does for its protagonist what it does for its audience. It’s an exquisite, soothing and enigmatic work of art, that deserves to be seen as overwhelmingly and intimately as any blockbuster.
The Calming screened at the virtual edition of New York Film Festival from September 19th to 24th
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs