Capturing the Image
Ela Bittencourt on The Pluto Moment

The Pluto Moment plays Sunday, January 13 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2019.

Zhang Ming’s The Pluto Moment is a delightful, quietly subversive film that, under the veil of a personal story, smuggles in details about China’s current cultural moment. In the film, indie director Wang Zhun (Wang Xuebing) visits his movie-star girlfriend, Gao Li (Miya Muqi), on a set in Shanghai. Film technicians are bustling under stark lights, and Wang is at first banned from coming close. This initial forced distance resonates on multiple levels. We soon learn that Wang would love for Gao to star in his art-house film, but he lacks financial backers and cannot finish the screenplay. The realities of his moviemaking practice are clearly far from industry biz and all its glitz. To emphasize this, Ming cuts from the opening sequence on-set, with its large multicultural crew, to a very different nocturnal setting: Wang, stirring in darkness, sleeping outdoors and cramped inside his sleeping bag. He is beside his assistant director and cameraperson Du Chun (Li Xinran), his producer Ding Hongmin (Liu Dan), and his potential lead actor Bai Jinbo (Yi Daqian). As they rise amidst the foggy forest setting in the mountainous Sichuan province, they are clearly far removed from the busy urban center, their economic realities also starkly opposed to those of the commercial set.

Ming’s filmmaking approach is naturalistic, with unobtrusive long takes and understated acting. While at first glance Ming seems to be mainly interested in human relationships, particularly male-female attraction, on further inspection we discover that his most passionate topic is the grit, the ins-and-outs, of filmmaking. And even though Wang is not Zhang, there are some hints that Zhang uses aspects of his own career to create a portrait of an alienated filmmaker. A so-called Sixth Generation filmmaker, Zhang attained early success with his debut, In Expectation (1996), which won awards at a number of international festivals. But he failed to follow up on his early promise, mostly making films commissioned by the government.

The Pluto Moment’s Wang shares with Zhang the bitter taste of lost glory. We do not know what Wang’s film is about; we can only surmise that it is fiction, set in a rural setting. Wang’s scouting for movie sites revolves around what he can and cannot afford. To this end, his producer Ding is there to negotiate every bit of the way—inviting the local big shot from the province to secure funds for the shoot, haggling over the price set by a driver, keeping their local guide, a local Party member, Luo (Yi Ping), in check. Ming luxuriates in the subtleties of the arrangement: Luo takes Wing at first to watch some performers that, while they do sing, accompanied by flashy outfits, large audiences, and electronic music, hardly possess the authenticity Wang seeks. We can surmise that he wishes to give his film a documentary dimension, an “authentic” feel, in contrast to the productions his girlfriend works on, in the city.

In this sense, Wang betrays an ambition to create a work that, while fictional, captures China’s tumultuous transitional moment. In the brief music performance that so dissatisfies Ding and Wang, we witness a clash between China’s pop contemporary culture, fueled by mass media, and its much older traditions. Such clashes have been previously captured by filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing, or visual artists likeAi Weiwei. The degree to which the fixer, Luo, takes the pop versions of folk culture for granted, and to which they shock Wang and Ding, reveals the role that Ming believes filmmakers play in resisting the rapid pace of change in Chinese society—a sentiment shared by Jia and Wang.

Ping is brilliant as an obsequious and enterprising, but also possibly scheming, village apparatchik cum fixer. We can never be sure if his role is to help Wang get the material he seeks, or instead to ensure, on the behalf of his political bosses, that no unwanted details are recorded that might show the region in a negative light. At one point, Du is bluntly told to erase the footage she has captured, even though she insists it is merely for the film’s internal documentation. In this sense, we get a quick but very clear glimpse of China’s culture of censorship, as it bears on every minute detail of its social and cultural life. Du protests but her argumentation is really beside the point: if she wants the film to exist at all, she will do as told, and delete her footage.

At another point, after the crew’s money has run out—the local backer falls through and they must now use their own funds to proceed in their search for singers—Luo takes them on an exhausting walk through the woods, all the way promising that transport is bound to show up any moment. Again, there is an inkling that at least some of Luo’s intention is to dither and dally, while appearing to be of great service. Ming doesn’t create a Manichean scenario. There are no dark forces in Wang’s way, just the usual daily meddling and pettiness, but also companionship, humor, good-naturedness. Wang exhibits stoical acceptance of whatever obstacles are put in his path. Nevertheless, as the crew marches on through the woods, soaking their feet in a stream, Bai carrying his producer Ding on his back to get across it, we cannot help but note that this is hardly the filmmaking adventure full of excitement and invention we associate with auteur cinema. This then becomes the core of Ming’s film: a slyly, poignantly unsentimental look at filmmaking, as a daily grind, as unthankful, prosaic, and only occasionally high-spirited toil.

Xuebing’s approach to his role is understated and calm, but there is always a sense of ill-ease and lack of confidence, of brooding restlessness. This is brought out mostly in Wang’s relationship with the more demonstratively demanding Du. Early in the scouting process, Du suddenly takes off at night. Ding, who shares the room with Du in a dingy motel, hypothesizes that this is due to Du’s menstrual cramps, but there is also a hint that Ding suspects the emotional, sexual tension between Du and Wang. Here Ming is in familiar territory, hinting at a possible affair between an older filmmaker and a pretty young woman. But where directors such as Hong Sang-soo make entire narratives out of this material, Ming approaches it with a sideways glance—the tension is there throughout, as Du reappears as suddenly as she vanished, and confesses how much she loved Wang’s early films, with what comes across as a teenage crush. But their relationship is far more nuanced than that, for Du has her own private secrets. As the tensions unravel, we realize just how little Wang, and we, know about her.

In this sense, the entire film is centered on such questions of personal knowledge. The country, unlike the city, has a slower pace, and abides more strictly by social décor and local customs. The relationships are always evolving, opaque, as are the power relations. Ding is not so much a mighty producer as she is an enabler, but she’s also a no-bullshit companion, a friend, and an older woman who watches Wang’s insecurities with a cool eye. Much pleasure is to be found in the way Ming establishes these emotional ties, as he shows Wang caught in the drama around an absent power-star girlfriend, a strong-willed passionate young woman, and a more mature, demanding artistic partner. Where all these women are grounded, Wang stumbles and wavers. Ming further enriches this triangulation by introducing a fourth element: young Bai’s eager need for Wang’s approval, as an older male and a director, and also Bai’s shy, poignant fascination with the slightly older but much more assertive and mysterious Du. It is a lovely setup for subtle flickers of hope, disappointment, and the small pains and betrayals that come from living for days on end at such close quarters.

Ming astutely eschews the kind of explosive drama that might have neatly tied up all the elements and tensions that he so skillfully set in place. The story ends, rather, when Wang and crew finally come across their treasure—a group of local folk funerary singers. Ming rewards the viewer with something quite dreamy and beautiful: a performance in a rustic village, with lyrics that speak, mysteriously, of darkness “as only the beginning.” This quick burst of lyricism, which springs up in a mostly documentary like setting—an observationally shot scene of a local funeral, with a performance and a communal meal—conveys a powerful sense that Wang too is only beginning to find his way.