“Picture.Perfect” (Hong Kong)
Directed by Shengze Zhu
What starts out as an incredibly interesting look in to the ways in which the internet has affected and illuminated Chinese culture in the strangest of ways, ends up becoming a tedious exercise in observing what the director thinks is either really cool, really hilarious, or really artistic. Alas, by the film’s eventual conclusion two hours later, you won’t remember if it’s any of the above. Which is an utter shame, because the first hour of the film is quite extraordinary. Using nothing but live-streams from everyday hum-drum Chinese life (workers, outcasts, dreamers and artistic souls), and existing outside of the scope of politics and government we’re used to seeing and hearing about, the film has the kind of hypnotic effect that, say, the Qaatsi Trilogy does.
In a nutshell, live streaming has become a major source of income for Chinese citizens. By making their “channels” as interesting, and/or illustrative of how different their lives are as possible, streamers receive gifts that can then be traded in for items or cash. Broken in to four different chapters, director Zhu sets up the film as a look at the difference between those who stream their work, and those who attempt to make a personal connection to their audience. And for two chapters it works brilliantly. The first revolves around people and their jobs – from the mundane to the unbelievable. The second connects us with the outcasts and the bored; the physically deformed, those who simply live on the outside of societal norms, and those who simply muddle through life’s travails.
Alas, Zhu has obviously never been introduced to the phrase, “leave them wanting more.” The third and fourth chapters continue to focus on four subjects from the second part, none of whom have all that much more to add than during their original appearances. And, inevitably, the process of watching them loses all it’s luster. Worse than that, it’s simply boring. There are at least two other subjects from the second part, that are, if not more captivating, would have diminished our angst at seeing the other four over and over again. For me, the film is at its best when it turn its gaze on those who are a part of the environment itself (bored crane operators, outhouse-seeking pig farmers and moon-walking construction workers), instead of the repetitive musings of some very unfortunate souls.
As for Zhu’s work as a film maker, there is much more here than simply editing a bunch of videos together. He has made some very specific artistic decisions in the film’s construction beyond deciding who we see. First, he makes the choice of presenting the entire film in a stark black and white. Distracting in some points, it is, overall, cosntructive. By removing color from the screen, it forces us to really listen and observe, instead of getting carried away or distracted by the museum effect that comes with looking at the frame of a film up on a wall (which, at its core, is what a film screen is). Speaking of framing, Zhu forces the original computer imagery to zoom beyond the upper and lower limits of his 1.85:1 aspect ratio (I’m guessing), instead of making the film match the streaming software ratio of 4:3. As a result, much of the info the streamers refer to is missing from view. It’s only mildly confusing, and a minor grumble, but from what I can understand, the film was made for an audience outside of China, so assuming we know what those visual references are is a risk I’m not sure pays off. Except in the extreme exterior shots (which are far too few in number), I would have been very happy observing exactly what the streaming audience sees. My guess is the director thought it would take away from our focus on the individuals. Perhaps he’s right, but by the end of the film, even this “issue” becomes are part of the tedium. Which leads to the biggest artistic failing of all: what are we supposed to focus on…the content of the individual moments or their existence in their own culture? It’s a decision Zhu never makes. Sigh.
If this somehow gets distribution or airs on TV or a streaming service, stay for the first two chapters. It is a worthy experiment and does lessen the mystery of what life is like on the other side of the world. Further, I am perfectly willing to admit that this film might not be for me, but is perhaps aimed specifically at Millenials, whom made up a large percentage of the audience in my screening. Upon the film’s very welcome completion, I noticed that, while many my age or older had already left the theater, the younger crowd was crowing about how “awesome” the film was…so it is quite possible I am merely too much a member of the “get off my lawn!” generation to have the right attention span for “Present.Perfect”. Regardless, I cannot recommend the entirety of this film to anyone of any age.
Oh…and to the guy seated to my left who was on something, guessing LSD or mushrooms, who thought every single thing was the funniest thing he’d ever seen and would cackle inappropriately in my ear throughout the entirety of the film…all I can say is, “what I wouldn’t give for a large sack of manure!”
Here’s the trailer…it sets up why the premise is so interesting: