A Chinese film crew is caught up in the Covid-19 outbreak in Lou Ye’s absorbing lockdown drama

An Unfinished Film

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘An Unfinished Film’

Dir: Lou Ye. Singapore/Germany. 2024. 102mins

An attempt to complete the making of an unfinished film is the narrative driver of Lou Ye’s supple, intriguing return to the sort of challenging filmmaking that first put him on the international radar with Souzhou River (2000). But there’s other unfinished business here – including global pandemic that radiated from the Chinese city of Wuhan. Folding amateur smartphone footage and news reports into the story of a film crew trapped in a provincial hotel in the chaotic first days of lockdown, Lou dusts off and reinstates a thought we all shared back then – that nothing will ever be the same again.

An absorbing portrait of an unfinished era

An Unfinished Film is an impressive, impressionistic attempt to capture  the strangeness of those early days from a Chinese perspective. But it also reminds us that the new normal is not the same as the old normal, in all sorts of ways: from the effect the pandemic had on our psyches, emotional lives and work-life balance to the kind of stories the world is watching today, and the kind of screens it’s watching them on. Extensive use of smartphone and low-res digital footage is just one of the factors that may keep An Unfinished Film out of the multiplexes, but it could find an engaged arthouse audience. The film sold to Bac Films for France and Lucky Red for Italy ahead of its Cannes Special Screening bow.

Lou’s last two features, The Shadow Play (2018) and Saturday Fiction (2019) were both stolid noir melodramas, but this Singapore/German co-production seems to show a renewed appetite for provocative experimentation.

The film is apparently inspired by Lou Ye’s discovery of outtakes and unused scenes from several of his earlier films on a computer that had not been turned on for 10 years. This discovery is reproduced in the film’s opening scene, set in the office of a director called Xiaorui – played by Mao Xiaorui, who closely resembles Lou. Moved by the freshness of one sequence in particular, purportedly from an abandoned film centering on a gay male love story starring actor Jiang Cheng (Lou regular Qin Hao), Xiaorui calls up the leading man, whose career has since taken off, to sound him out about finally finishing the project a decade later. But Jiang’s wife Sang Qi (Qi Xi) is about to have their first child, and he’s reluctant to get involved, eventually overcoming his obvious admiration for the director to blurt out: “What’s the point if nobody sees it? The film won’t even pass the censors.”

But Xiaorui must have won him round, because all of a sudden we’re in a hotel in some undisclosed urban location with the cast and crew a few days before Chinese New Year in January 2020. The shoot is well advanced but by no means over when troubling reports start to circulate about roadblocks and temperature checks. Lou plays this phase like a thriller, showing how China accelerated from zero to lockdown not in days, but in hours. If Jiang hadn’t gone back to his room to pack, he might have joined two young actor friends who were able to leave; instead, after a fracas with security guards that leaves him bleeding, he’s confined to his room, able to connect with his young wife and cute baby daughter only through the cold glow of a smartphone screen. 

What was the film Xiaorui came here to make? We never really find out, and we’re equally confused about where the action is taking place. The crew hairdresser is sent packing before things get really bad, as he’s from Wuhan; yet some time later, Jiang begins filming from his hotel window a woman who is walking behind an ambulance/hearse, wailing for her dead mother. Imperceptibly, we cut to an amateur video shot in Wuhan in those dark early days – except this time we know we’re watching a real woman who mother has really just died, because this is one of those familiar viral video fragments we all watched back then.

Are we in Wuhan or out of it, in a film within a film or the real world? The screen itself reflects this fusion and confusion, contracting to accommodate to the left the vertical strip of a smartphone screen. This is video’s new normal – seeing the tearful face of somebody you love filling a tall frame, emotion expressed in portrait rather than landscape. But the cinema screen also splits further into strips and squares in an exhilarating set piece sequence in which the quarantined crew members join a group call from their lonely rooms and dance, dress up and fool about in a defiant celebratory exorcism of lockdown fear and coercion. Limber and thought-provoking, An Unfinished Film is an absorbing portrait of an unfinished era.

Production companies: Yingfilms Pte Ltd, Essential Films

International sales: Coproduction Office, sales@coproductionoffice.eu

Producers: Philippe Bober, Yingli Ma

Screenplay: Lou Ye, Yingli Ma

Cinematography: Zeng Jian

Production design: Zhong Cheng

Editing: Tian Jiaming

Main cast: Qin Hao, Mao Xiaorui, Qi Xi, Liang Ming, Huang Xuan