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An Unfinished Film | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

An Unfinished Film | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

The Act of Watching: Lou Ye Mixes Picture Lock Dreams & Lock Down Nightmares

Does a film exist if it was never completed? It’s a reality that no working filmmaker ever wants to entertain, and yet we find sixth-generation Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye take the plunge (possibly exorcise some personal and professional demons) for what is a riveting, highly inventive mid-career oeuvre masterstroke. Part documentary yet part faux documentary, part fiction (with thriller genre elements) and part critical essay, An Unfinished Film seeks to contextualize the past by reframing the present.

Set just a couple of months before the global standstill of January 2020, this revolves around a film crew reuniting to revive a feature that didn’t make it to the finish line. While Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) may require some adjustments to embody his character once again, the crew led by the film’s director Xiaorui (Mao Xiaoru) are poised to greenlit for a second time and measures to resume shooting the film that was abruptly halted a decade earlier take place. As the crew delve into the contents of old hard drives and sound cards, it evokes memories of Lou’s earlier filmography. The neat part here is this is captured in full documentary style (one wonders how the film might have come across if Lou had inserted himself in the composition). And while An Unfinished Film doesn’t explicitly reference his oeuvres, one can’t help but recall the filmmaker’s past struggles with Chinese censors, reflecting on the experiences depicted in his films from the 2000s from Suzhou River (2000) all the way up to Spring Fever (2009). Memories are real. Anxiety is real. And here it’s compounded.

Time stamps document a new timeline and there is something to be said about knowing that everyone one screen are part of a slow-moving disaster that will spill over into all facets of life. The worst part, the shoot happens to take place in Wuhan. Lou skillfully moves from documentary to a creative set of holla-hopes and it subverts its initial format. Entering the heart of the storm, it shows how frail and incapacitated we were and it sheds light on the individual and collective panic. A damning statement against Wuhan perhaps, but also the inefficiency of the government, when the first sanitary masks pop up we understand that the plug is about to be pulled for a second time — but it signifies that the confined space within the hotel where the film is being produced will become a prison. And here, the film takes a bold step forward, presenting a shared screen display of cabin fever, celebration, resilience and the innate need for creativity.

Technically sound, with some choice editing, when the film graduates into stream of different panic-inducing new steps that supplant the concerns of just the sequence before — it showcases the film’s genius in seamlessly blending various tones and themes. The type of film you’ll want to rush towards the end credits to confirm whether you might have been catfished or not, under the guise of a collective unfinished business at the most unfortunate of moments in recent human civilization we are also gifted the best of the post-pandemic themed films and the torment of what it is to be a filmmaker with a long memory. Trying to manoeuvre around government censorship is akin to figuring out how to wrestle with a reality of the lockdown. Coming off the pristine Saturday Fiction, An Unfinished Film shows us how one man’s misery is that same man’s fortune.

Reviewed on May 16th at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Special Screenings section. 106 Mins.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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