THE PLUTO MOMENT 冥王星时刻 Patiently Illuminates The Struggles Of Independent Filmmaking in Modern China
Independent film director Wang Zhun, together with his urbanite crew, travels to the mountains of Southwest China seeking inspiration in The Tale of Darkness, a traditional song of mourning performed in the countryside.
Director: Zhang Ming
Cast: Wang Xuebing, Liu Dan, Zeng Meihuizi, Miya Muqi, Yi Daqian, Li Xinran, Yi Ping
Language: Mandarin, English
Runtime: 110 minutes
“Who are you?” A Caucasian crew member asks independent film director Wang Zhun (Wang Xuebing) – first in English, then in Mandarin. Set against the harsh neon of Shanghai’s cityscape, The Pluto Moment opens with Zhun visiting his movie-star wife, Gao Li (Miya Muqi), on the set of a big budget action flick.
Zhun’s alienation from this world is immediately apparent, with nobody recognising him and having to be relegated to a corner. After failing to convince his wife to star in his upcoming film, Zhun ventures to China’s countryside with his crew in search of inspiration for his project and purpose in his artistic struggles.
The Pluto Moment premiered as part of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight. The film is also director Ming Zhang’s first since China Affair in 2013. Inspired by his own odyssey to the mountainside, it can be difficult to separate Zhun from the man behind the camera. Zhang, too, was spellbound by The Tale of Darkness, a traditional song of mourning, and was beset by budgetary woes for The Pluto Moment.
Films about filmmaking have long been a staple of an auteur’s filmography – and for good reason. It allows for confrontational commentary through the director-surrogate while, often times, romanticising the struggling artist trope. With The Pluto Moment, Zhang, a leading voice of China’s Sixth Generation filmmakers, uses the opportunity to expertly capture the anxiety of an artist beset by the seemingly inevitable wave of commercialism.
Zhang explores this theme through the dynamics of its five main characters. Zhun’s producer, Ding Hongmin (Liu Dan), is the backbone of the project, tirelessly seeking investors while navigating through the seemingly endless setbacks in their journey to find a performance of The Tale of Darkness. Bai Jinbo (Yi Daqian), an aspiring actor, looks to impress Zhun to secure a role in the director’s next project. He competes for Zhun’s affection and attention with Du Chun (Li Xinran), a young videographer and an admirer of the director’s work. The crew is accompanied by local party official Luo (Yi Ping), serving as both a guide and an imposing shadow of the party during the trek.
The journey of these characters is accompanied by the elegant backdrop of the mountainside and documented by virtuosic camerawork. Whether it is used to show glimpses of intimacy or as it trails behind the characters’ trek into the unknown, Zhang endeavors to keep the camera at his characters’ eye level. This successfully creates a sense of grounded connection, while the misty landscape lends a dreamlike quality to the film. Unfortunately this also highlights how some characters feel underwritten and underdeveloped. While Ding and Bai are the drivers of much of the banter that keep The Pluto Moment lighthearted, they also spend most of it as bystanders.
I felt that the film had more than enough space to expand on these characters. It would have been interesting to explore the reasons why Ding chooses to struggle for independent filmmaking, especially through the lens of the nitty-gritty and often thankless work of the producer. Rather, the film mostly centres around Zhun, Chun, and Luo.
Instead of fulfilling his intended purpose, Zhun spends a good portion of the trek flirting with the youthful Chun. It soon becomes clear that both are hopelessly lost within their own endeavors. Their growth throughout the film, spurred on by their conversations, kept me engaged throughout. Both roles were performed with intricate subtlety backed by a solid script.
The highlight of the film has to be the scene where the crew seeks shelter from the storm in an herb digger’s hut out in the mountains. The film soon turns to a conversation between the local and Zhun, both sharing how they met their wives and how the former’s life has changed with China’s growth. It is through this conversation where Zhun’s malaise of his country is deftly felt, despite his modern city life being envied by the local. Luo, even while nodding off, makes the party’s presence known by changing the subject when the herb digger starts talking about the hardships brought by past policies. The conversation is secretly filmed by Chun; a quiet rebellion behind the back of the half-asleep party official.
Filmed and produced under state supervision, the same can be said for The Pluto Moment Accompanied by superb camera movements and a gorgeous backdrop, the film is a pensive look at the price of modernity on art and artist that was both a tantalizing treat for the eyes and mind.
The Pluto Moment will be screened on 27th September and 28th September at Filmgarde Cineplex in Bugis as part of the Contemporary Asian Cinema Series (CAC).
You can watch the trailer here:
The Contemporary Asian Cinema Series (CAC) is a new cinematic initiative by Singapore Film Society and Filmgarde Cineplexes to celebrate Asian films in all its diversity and to present critically acclaimed works from emerging and established film directors from the region.
CAC is a fixed monthly programme that bridges the professional film industry with film goers and aficionados through thoughtfully curated film screenings paired with educational and audience engagement elements, such as talks by film critics and programmers, as well as post-screening discussions with the filmmakers and cast, with the aim of building film interest and literacy.