The harsh critique towards the increasingly materialistic Chinese society and the consequences of a country that seems to move forward with almost no regard for its citizens has been a recurring one in the local independent cinema. Li Ruijun tackles this subject with an approach that lingers quite close to the mainstream.

Walking Past the Future screened at Helsinki Cine Aasia Film Festival 2018

Yaoting works in a factory assembling motherboards and spends most of her time chatting on her phone with a guy she met online. Her parents were peasants who left their hometown of Gansu to work in Shenzhen, but after her father suffers an injury that indicates that he is not physically capable of working in the same rhythm, he is laid off immediately, and soon after, the same happens to his wife. Having no alternative, the family returns back to Ganshu only to find that very little has remained the same, and moreover, that their land has been allocated to the to the descendant of its pre-war landowners. Without any options, they agree to work as employees of the new owner, but after a day in the fields, they are fired, because they cannot keep up with the regular workers.

Yaoting, who had no intention of staying there from the beginning, returns to her previous work, with a clear purpose of buying a house and bringing her family back. As she shares a flat with two coworkers, Li Qian and Hong, she comes across some people willing to allow her to “reserve” a house just with a down payment, and she reluctantly agrees. However, as business in her factory does not look so bright, and she is threatened with losing her deposit, she decides to partake in some high risk medical tests, following the example of Li Qian, who does so to indulge her obsession with plastic surgery, after the instigation of a man that enters their life quite unexpectedly, Xinmin. All the while, Yaoting keeps talking to her online friend.

Li Ruijin makes a number of pointy comments regarding the contemporary Chinese society. The issue with the factories relocating to other countries for even cheaper labor and the impact this tactic has on the country’s workforce is the central one, with the repercussion being visible to all aspects of the “lower” levels of society. The new laws regarding land are another, and through the combination of the two, Li presents the fact that many Chinese are completely hopeless, since the government provides no solution, particularly for those who abandoned their farmlands in order to seek work opportunities in the urban centers.

The obsession with social media and with appearance is another, and through these two, Li highlights the materialistic nature of the contemporary Chinese society, and the consequences pursuing this kind of commodities can have on people. In that regard, I found the script a bit overly dramatic, although not to a point that faults the film. Lastly, the script also deals with loneliness and the difficulty of forming romantic relationships, although the romantic aspect of the movie seems to detract, to a point, from the impact the narrative could have, which points to the mainstream approach I mentioned in the prologue.

Overall, Li’s approach to the various topics in the film seems to be a bit detached and toned down, perhaps because he chose to portray a plethora. On the other hand, this tactic makes the film more entertaining, without detracting much from the comments Li wanted to make.

Wang Weihua’s cinematography is one of the best aspects of the production, with his framing being exceptional, either in the urban or in the rural environments, with a number of outstanding images, as the one with the family’s reunion and the various occurring in the karaoke parlor.

The acting follows the general lines of the film, lingering between the mainstream and the realistic. Yang Zishan is quite good in the protagonist role, as a young woman who becomes increasingly hopeless, having very little to be happy about. Her chemistry with her two radically different roommates (feisty Li Qian and completely reserved Hong) is another of the film’s best aspects. The one who steals the show though, is Yin Fang as Xinmin, whose drifter and persuasive nature is portrayed elaborately.

“Walking Past the Future” could be more impactful, considering the topics it deals with, but the approach Li Ruijun implemented stresses the entertainment aspect more, and what is where the film’s value lies.