The Shadowless Tower is a meditative drama that is full of introspection. Zhang Lü guides us through his latest film, which somehow says very little but resonates with you in the tenderest of ways.
Gu Wentong, a middle-aged food critic living in his recently deceased mother’s apartment, begins to date the young photographer Ouyang Wenhui at work. By chance, Gu Wentong learned his father’s whereabouts, who had lost contact with him for more than forty years. Encouraged by Ouyang Wenhui, Gu Wentong chose to face his father and regained the long-lost father-son relationship.
Zhang Lü‘s film is one that is full of yearning, regret and abandonment. Characters yearn to be complete and have the life they have seen plenty around them have but cannot achieve. Be it Gu Wentong, full of regret at being unable to stand up for what he believes in and letting his marriage fail with little fight, or even to fulfil his primary love of being a poet. He yearned for a father figure; without one, he has floundered. It is not just parental figures that have been lost, causing this pain within our characters. Multiple talk of loves who abandoned them to live a dream life elsewhere (which usually doesn’t work out for that person).
Zhang Lü constantly stages his characters in wide two shots, yet they never feel as if they are present with one another. They could be a mere foot from one another, and you wouldn’t feel a connection. Characters look at one another through reflections or doorways, always giving themselves and the audience some barrier. Piao Songri composes some delicately stylish shots that solidify Zhang Lü’s overarching theme. That camera mostly stays still, but the characters move around, unable to settle with their situation, with who they are.
Portraying the characters this way in The Shadowless Tower tells you everything you need to know without uttering a word. It is integral to the success of the film that we understand just how far this group of characters have drifted from emotional normality. When we get to see where Wentong’s father lives (which just so happens to be where Ouyang Wenhui was born) in the seaside town of Beidaihe, it almost feels like we are in a different film. Suddenly, there is a brightness present that wasn’t before. They make Beijing look vast but small, whereas Beidaihe looks so open, less confined to what came from previous eras.
He also presents Beijing in a way few of us have encountered before. We see a city still working itself out, with traditional buildings littered all over. However, coupled with that is a city trying to be more modern and more aware of itself. Yet, it can’t hide those glaring communist walls and city planning that bears over its civilians. It becomes the perfect partner to these characters’ own stories.
Bai Qing Zin plays quite possibly the most polite and cautious man to ever exist on a cinema screen. Gu Wentong is a character who took the loss of his father’s presence so hard that he just allowed himself to glide by in life. He rarely lifts his head to give meaningful eye contact, is led through situations by almost every woman he encounters, and just about gets by. With that said, there is something to him, and Bai Qing Zin does some great work in giving him a presence that lures you in. With each discovery of self-actualisation about himself and those around him, he finds he isn’t quite as alone as he first thought.
With each of these lightbulb moments, he changes; with his father, he originally curls up into a ball, unsure of what to do with his emotions; when he and his sister have a heart-to-heart, he asks for physical comfort. Then, by the film’s end, he gives out emotional support while still being far too polite for his own good. It’s a role that requires the actor to be quite fragile, and he easily pulls it off.
Ouyang Wenhui, on the other hand, has had a similar experience as Gu Wentong but with entirely different results. She is forthright and proactive in her life and, for many of The Shadowless Tower, leads and pushes Gu Wentong to dare to take a step forward. However, she also comes with her own baggage. Her relationship with our food critic is one predominantly due to the missing relationship with her father, even at one point having him pretend to be her father when around a group of men playing chess outside. With their tiptoe relationship, it feels almost as if they are looking into the past and the present of each other, and for Ouyang Wenhui, that scares her, and she cannot allow herself to fall down that same path. Without a doubt, Huang Yao nearly steals this film with her performance; having seen her in The Crossing, she is an actor going from strength to strength.
What makes The Shadowless Tower stay with you is how it doesn’t even attempt to tell us the whole of Gu Wentong’s story. We are given a glimpse of a man’s midlife crisis; thanks to Ouyang Wenhui, a door has been opened for him to start a relationship with his father. For him to venture beyond his polite stupor and live a happier, more present life. Whether he fully embraces that opportunity remains to be seen. Still, there is a willingness, which can only be a positive start.
The Shadowless Tower shows us how influenced we become by how we are raised; on some occasions, that influence can paralyse the characters from a social standpoint, stunt their growth as a person and have them clinging to what they know or slash out at what they should have had. This leaves Zhang Lü’s glacially paced film to seep into you more than you would ever expect.
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