Walking Past the Future (2017)

Review #1,580

Director:  Li Ruijun
Cast:  Yang Zishan, Yin Fang
Plot:  Having hoped to find a future for their next generation, the Yangs only reckon that after many hard years of working in Shenzhen as construction and factory workers, the new Shenzhen no longer has a place for them.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Un Certain Regard Award (Cannes)
Runtime:  129 mins
Rating:  PG (passed clean)
International Sales:  Edko Films

With four features already under his belt, 35-year old Chinese director Li Ruijun is slowly becoming one of the standout indie filmmakers from Mainland China.  His films grapple with human relationships amid hardship, often capturing a segment of his characters’ life journeys against the land that they are from.  His latest, a Cannes Un Certain Regard nominee, continues his fascination for characters on the periphery, who must seek the courage to survive in a harsh world, even if they don’t always see the right kind of light at the end of the tunnel.  

Walking Past the Future tells of the Yang family—father, mother, adult daughter and younger daughter—who moved to the city of Shenzhen in South China more than 20 years ago to find work, in hopes of securing a future for the family.  With Shenzhen rapidly developing, and the dream of financial security still a distant thought, the family returns to their poor province of Gansu where living costs are much lower to try to meet ends meet.  Told from the point-of-view of the older daughter, Yaoting (Yang Zishan in an effective low-key performance), who after a short spell helping her family to harvest crops in Gansu, heads back to Shenzhen in hopes of making more money.  

Li’s film is about the fear of an uncertain future amid rising costs and job scarcity, and from a larger picture, it is about the perils of capitalism that has left so many citizens behind.  Those who are lucky to find a job, most of which are laborious in nature like construction, have to toil for long hours with low wages.  It is with this context that Li’s work, a social-realist one, tries to find meaning and resonance in people’s lives that have been affected by a disconnect with a materialistic society.  

For much of the film, Yaoting is on her phone seeking refuge in a ‘friend’ she has met online, while her good buddy is obsessed with how she looks, desiring cosmetic surgery.  Endless residential and commercial buildings continue to prop up while people make big investments in property, some I reckon are scams.  Yaoting also resorts to being part of clinical drug trials to earn extra income—at times it seemed like the only way to earn good money.  

All these are frightening, and one could fairly describe Li’s work as nightmarish insofar as people are so desperate for scraps that it is hard to start living, let alone to dream.  Walking Past the Future is assured, non-confrontational filmmaking, and a strong portrait of a generation’s hopes for a better life, even if it is a life with untold sacrifices to make.

Verdict:  An assured fourth feature by Li Ruijun, whose work here captures themes of capitalism and labour, and how dreams of having a better life are often scuppered.




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