The only Chinese film scheduled to screen in the official competition at Cannes this year is Li Ruijun’s underwhelming Walking Past the Future, which is being shown – quite rightly, as it happens – as part of the Un Certain Regard section.
We first meet young woman Yaoting as she waits to pick up an appointment slip for her father at the hospital. He is ailing and has a damaged back but still needs to work. However, despite his protests he is laid off simply for taking the time off to see the doctor. Yaoting’s mother is coincidentally fired the same day, but in a bizarre twist her father’s factory collapses in a landslide. “If I hadn’t been laid off, I’d be dead,” he muses. It is an intimation of how vulnerable everyone is to the vagaries of fate, the whims of the market and the lack of any safeguards. Maybe it’s the chronic uncertainty that makes Yaoting cling so ardently to an online friendship which constantly moves back and forth throughout.
Impoverished, Yaoting’s family move back to their village where life will at least be cheaper. Here they are greeted warmly but soon seen to be strangers. They are unfit for the hard physical labour and they stand out with their odd accents and their pale soft skin. Yaoting returns to Shenzhen where she works at an electronics factory with perky co-worker Li Qian (Wang Ting). Living in a dorm with other workers, she hears about a scheme to earn money by participating in drug trials. Li Qian is a willing participant, hoping to fund a nose job, the latest in a series of cosmetic surgeries she’s obsessed about. Punky-looking Xinmin (Yin Fang) is the hustler who rounds up volunteers, taking advantage of the economic instability of the times. Yaoting is saving up to put down a deposit on a small flat but the price keeps going up and the factory she works at suddenly closes for a week “due to the market”. Yaoting reluctantly agrees to take part in the trial, hoping that the money will be enough for her deposit.
Things don’t go well and the pessimism of Walking Past the Future is presented almost as a wistful acceptance of fate. As with the collapsing factory or the family land – which they discover has been sold from under them – there’s a kind of doomed if we do, doomed if we don’t dilemma about life generally. The texting between Yaoting and – unbeknownst to her until the final act – Xinmin is one of the clunkier elements. Although the discontents of present day China are depicted, the rage of a film like Touch of Sin is lacking. With Wang Weihua’s often beautiful cinematography, you also feel like you’re under the effects of some drug trial medication.