Dir: Yu Lik Wai. China-France. 96mins

Shot digitally for the sake of flexibility and screened the same way in Un Certain Regard at Cannes - though a film version is in the making, to judge by the credits - Yu Lik Wai's second feature attempts to explore the near future by drawing references from the recent past. Its bleak vision of post-Apocalyptic Asia suggests that, whether we have learned our history lessons or not, we are bound to live through them again. It is not a difficult message to decipher, despite the ponderous pace, desolate images and pretentious storytelling technique. With so many weighty factors involved in the production and support of this film, a festival career seems certain but, beyond that, even TV slots may be a problem once its Arte bookings are done with.

The premise is that some time in the course of this century, all political structures in Asia will fall apart, its economy will disintegrate and a new, iron-fisted cult will take over. Though the nature of this cult, perpetrated by a sect known as Gui Dao, is never made quite clear, its conduct is painfully familiar. People are relocated across the vast continent, borders are redrawn and new passports brand the wandering, destitute masses as 'refugees'. Anyone who is less than eager to conform and obey is immediately dispatched to re-education camps - grim, cold and grey places bearing cheerful names such as 'Camp Prosperity'. Two brothers, Zhuai and Mian, find themselves there, under the strict discipline of guardians who regulate the lives of the inmates.

One day the chief inspector makes a run for it, leaving the camp's gate wide open after him, the first clear sign that the ruling sect is about to be ousted, and the two brothers escape in the company of two women they met on the premises. Finding lodgings of sorts in a nearby abandoned city, they attempt to organise their lives in the chaos left behind after the departure of the Gui Dao gangs.

Illusions that things could go back to the way they were are soon dispelled, first because no-one seems to remember what that really was, also because there is no way to turn the clock back. Each of the four leading characters finally exits the story in a different manner, and though there is the suggestion that an open end is offered, at least in some of the cases, the prevailing gloom hovering over the entire proceedings is not quite dispelled.

While Yu Lik Wai claims the Gao Dai sect is inspired by the Taliban, it is difficult to ignore the similarities with the Cultural Revolution in China or even a reference to the Holocaust, when, searching for a memory of the past, a woman raises the sleeve of her shirt with a terrorised look in her eyes. Signs of present threats such as dangerous epidemics or lack of fuel are abundant, and a slaughterhouse turned into a frenetic club looks trendy enough to open for business next week. The addition of pointers such as a train going nowhere, a city called Port Prosperity or flight engines planted on solid ground, are supposed to enhance the feeling that the future has no great things in store for us.

There are moments when the Yu Lik Wai forgets to philosophise and allows his characters to blossom as individuals, for instance after they wash in their favourite soaps and compare their smells, or in a touching scene when a man and a woman hold hands in a hospital, but these occasions are few and far between. In such instances, there is another film here that almost breaks out. Almost, but not quite.

Prod cos: Lumen Films, Hu Tong Communications, Won&Won Pictures with the financial support of Teleimages, Hubert Bals Fund, Fondazione Montecinema Verita, Ascona, Hong Kong Arts Development Council
Int'l sales:
Celluloid Dreams
Hengameh Panahi, Li Kit Ming
Yu Lik Wai
Lai Yiu Fai
Chow Keung
Main cast:
Cho Yong Won, Diao Yi Nan, Zhao Wei Wei, Na Ren