When many cinemagoers don’t know that much more about contemporary Chinese cinema than the socially insightful works of the always top-notch Jia Zhangke or the more uneven oeuvre of directing veteran Zhang Yimou, it is useful to get acquainted with the prolific Lu Zhang’s delight in last year’s Berlinale competition: The Shadowless Tower, its warm and humane story being an insightful and nuanced observation of modern China.
The protagonist of this painful but tender and slightly comedic story is Gu Wentong, a middle-aged, divorced restaurant critic who has dabbled at poetry and charged his sisters with the care of his daughter, an amicable arrangement in itself. The man has anyhow succeeded in building a romantic relationship with a 25-year-old photographer, the liberal-minded Ouyang Wenhui.
On equally friendly terms with alcohol, Gu Wentong is gnawed by the past even more so than the present, namely by his relationship with his father living 300 kilometres from Beijing, estranged since childhood, even though Ouyang offers to help fix the problem. The film’s title comes from a legendary Buddhist temple, its lack of shadow drawing metaphors into the protagonist’s life.
Moving onto directing at the ripe age of 38, LU ZHANG (b. 1962) is an exceptional Chinese filmmaker in two ways: he already had a career in literature, and his ethnic background is third-generation Korean Chinese. Lu was writing novels and teaching Chinese Literature at a university in Jilin. In 2000, he directed a short film later selected to the Venice Film Festival, just to prove to his director friend that ”anyone can make movies.” To solidify his claim, he has since made 14 feature films that have garnered acclaim at such festivals as Cannes, Berlinale, and Locarno.