“You look fat and healthy, and you dress well,” Wang Zhun (Wang Xuebing) tells a fellow director at the beginning of The Pluto Moment. It’s a little hard to tell whether it’s a back-handed compliment or a thinly-veiled insult, but the way in which he walks away immediately after, leaving the other man staring on in bewilderment, suggests the latter.
An arthouse filmmaker himself, Zhun has found himself on the set of a glitzy international production by pure chance. His wife Gao Li (Miya) is the movie’s action star, delivering high kicks in an all-leather jumpsuit when he arrives. The production is a mess of mixed languages and moving parts, moviemaking on the sort of mammoth scale reserved for real blockbusters. From the way he is skeptically interrogated upon arrival, to the forlorn look he wears as he watches on from the side-lines, it is clear that this is not Zhun’s world.
When shooting is wrapped up and the couple have a chance to talk, we find out that Zhun is trying to tempt his wife away from her glamorous, big-budget titles to star in his next venture. He doesn’t have any money for the film. Or a script. She already has another film lined up. Why not just wait and star in the sequel, he asks? Because, of course, this kind of movie always has a sequel. Or the third one? She playfully suggests.
Even with only the half-baked beginnings of an idea and no funding, he seems confident that his movie would be more worthwhile than whatever franchise she has been asked to helm. Even if he does not yet know what it will be about, he knows that his movie will at least be about something.
Inspired in part by Zhang Ming’s own struggles as an independent filmmaker in an industry that is increasingly only interested in movies which can perform across continents, The Pluto Moment is a rumination on art and why we make it. What a movie means, what it can convey. Why any of it matters. If any of it matters.
The overlit, overcrowded beginnings are quickly abandoned as Zhun and his crew ascend into the mountains in search of inspiration for his next project. His plan is to adapt the “Tale of Darkness,” an ancient hymnal describing the birth of the universe itself which is still performed as a funeral rite in some remote villages. With him are his seasoned producer Ding (Liu Dan), puppy dog-like aspiring actor Bai (Yi Daqian) and mysterious assistant director Du (Li Xinran). They are joined by local party official Luo (Yi Ping), whose knowledge of the area makes him indispensable in spite of his garrulous tendencies and taste for exaggeration. Together, they wander through the hills in search of somewhere to see the song performed.
Their journey is slow and often delayed. As they leave the busyness of the modern world behind them and their own banter begins to trickle out, each of them retreats into their interior self. It’s this action, the action going on behind their eyes, which The Pluto Moment holds its focus on. The camera continually lingers on longing glances and enigmatic stares. Conversations are circled from the outside, from the vantage points of those not involved. Silence draws attention to what is not being said.
The skill in Ming’s camerawork is to centre each shot on that which hangs invisibly in the air between his characters, to draw the eye towards that which is just obscured. Never is this more powerfully felt than when there is a sexual tinge to it. As Du and Zhun coyly circle one another, the electricity between them is unmistakable, even as nothing happens. Especially as nothing happens.
Every scene they share reminds us that, beneath all the existential musings on life and art, beneath all their meticulous planning as they try to assemble funding and arrange transport, there is something warm in their blood that has a much greater sway over what they will do next. As the group marches through the trees, the heaviness of each character’s breathing is continually fore-fronted. For all our philosophical ambitions, we are physical first.
“You look fat and healthy, and you dress well” a farmer tells Zhun, as the group seeks food and shelter from him. The two men have a long talk in which the farmer tells Zhun about meeting his wife, falling madly in love, building a simple life with her. Like Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, Zhun is indeed a man of wealth and taste in search of something more meaningful. For a moment, he seems to have found it in the simple, rural life of a peasant farmer, just as Levin did. All the while, Du is recording their conversation, and Zhun admits he has been making up stories to match the farmer’s. Can something as artificial as cinema ever capture anything truly real?
Watching The Pluto Moment is like being alongside the film crew on their meditative mountain escape. The noise and busyness of everyday life slips away, washed out by the lush, hazy mountainsides and the hypnotising patter of the rain. As the journey ends, the city lights appear once more on the horizon, and we prepare to step back out of the theatre’s darkness, we haven’t answered any of the deeper questions posed. But, for a while, we remembered that they were there.
Ross McIndoe is a freelance writer currently living in Glasgow alongside two small turtles and one small lady. He writes about most aspects of popular culture for publications like The Skinny, Bright Wall/Dark Room and Film School Rejects. He can be found on Twitter @OneBigWiggle.
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