True to its name, Song Fang’s low-key drama will soothe your nerves, but not much else.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)
Just when things seem to be at their bleakest in the world, there seems to be a new low to reach. Comfort is hard to come by, and too often it’s fleeting and hollow. You could do worse than Song Fang’s The Calming, which won’t win any points for excitement but acts as a warm, soothing bath for the brain.
A semi-autobiographical story about Song’s life after filming Memories Look at Me, The Calming follows Lin (Qi Xi), a young filmmaker traveling solo through Japan, China and Hong Kong as she tours her documentary. All we know about Lin is that she’s recently gone through a breakup, and her father is going through some health issues. Lin plays her emotions very close to the vest, however, making it difficult to tell how she feels about either situation. Song’s decision to keep the character ostensibly based on herself so distant and detached from the audience is puzzling, and it’s what keeps The Calming from being fully engaging.
With her impassive face and stilted way of speaking, Lin drifts from place to place like a ghost. We get no sense of how she feels about her own art, or what truly inspires her. It’s possible that everything inspires her, snow lazily falling, the chattering din of diners in a restaurant, and she’s just quietly soaking it in. You can’t see the world if you’re constantly talking about it, after all. That being said, the most moving moment in The Calming is near the end, when Lin allows the impassiveness to slip a little and cries while attending an opera. It’s as quiet and understated as everything else Lin does, and it passes in a moment.
There’s almost no plot to speak of, and the other characters Lin encounters on her journey don’t stick around long enough to make much of an impression. It’s a fairly plodding ninety minutes. But it also does what it says on the tin: The Calming is, indeed, a very calming experience to watch. There’s no action, but there’s also no conflict either, which is a welcome respite from the world as it is right now. It’s also beautifully shot, in a way that feels natural, but also creates a dreamy sense of longing.
More than anything else, it’ll make you miss the mundanity of jumping on a train to visit friends, or meandering through a crowded city street, feeling alone but also knowing you’re part of the world. We don’t know where Lin is going to end up, or what she’ll do when she gets there, but how lucky is she to be able to simply wander?