Walking Past the Future film review: dull drama about China’s societal ills features Yang Zishan as migrant worker

Cannes festival 2017 entry plays more like a checklist of what’s wrong with Chinese society than genuinely engaging cinema, and even the star power of actress Yang Zishan fails to lift Li Ruijun’s downbeat, Shenzhen-set story

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 9:01am

2/5 stars

The ugly side of China’s economic boom is explored in Walking Past the Future, which premiered as the only Chinese entrant at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. But despite the star power of actress Yang Zishan, who plays a migrant worker in modern-day Shenzhen, director Li Ruijun’s downbeat drama plays more like a checklist of societal ills than genuinely engaging cinema.

When her parents get laid off and are forced to return home to Gansu province in China’s arid northwest, Yaoting (Yang) stays in Shenzhen in the hope of buying a luxury flat for the family. But her salary from the Foxconn-style electronics factory where she works isn’t enough, so Yaoting supplements her income as a lab rat for experimental drugs, with predictably tragic results.

Li, himself a Gansu native, expresses numerous concerns about the state of modern-day China, from the predatory housing market to the high-pressure life of factory employees. His film also shines a light on the government’s changing land reform policies, which have left many migrant workers without a home to call their own, as a new generation of landowners lays claim to their land.

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Yaoting finds herself caught between old traditions and new-found capitalist greed. She willingly barters away her own health to provide for her parents, but in doing so finds herself alienated and alone in a sprawling metropolis. Her only solace is in the confessional – and anonymous – online relationship she maintains with Yin Fang’s opportunistic young grifter.

While there is plenty to admire and applaud in Li’s efforts to expose the struggles and hypocrisies inherent in his homeland, his film does so at the expense of its audience. Walking Past the Future moves at a glacial pace, and lacks any bold, stylistic flourishes. The narrative unfolds with precious few surprises, signposting potential reveals to the audience long before his characters discover them.

It could be argued that Li is employing a documentary-like journalistic perspective, where auteurist flourishes would be out of place. But it’s really just dull filmmaking.

Walking Past the Future opens on May 31

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