What few conversations there are in Song Fang’s chronically meditative “The Calming” tend to revolve around someone who never appears onscreen: Our heroine’s recent ex-boyfriend, a man with whom she may have at one point expected to spend the rest of her life. Or so we sense by the way that Lin (“So Long, My Son” star Qi Xi, delivering a still pond of a performance) winces at the news that a friend is getting married, observes her aging parents with an awe that seems rooted in absence, and spends long stretches of the movie — perhaps even the majority of its runtime — framed against the windows of various buses, trains, and hotel rooms as if she’s watching a world to which she once belonged.
Sensing is all that Song asks or allows us to do, as concrete details are hard to come by in her ultra-elliptical breakup movie about a woman emerging from the protective (if inhibiting) cocoon of her own heartache. Imbued with the same plaintive grace that shaped its director’s previous feature — the even more nakedly personal and documentary-like “Memories Look at Me,” which she made after playing a Chinese film student in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon” — “The Calming” follows Lin’s wayward journey around Japan, Hong Kong, mainland China, and back to herself like a map without a legend. The most explicit clue we get about the origins of Lin’s wanderlust comes when a friend asks about her ex, and Lin replies with a firm but casual “let’s change the subject.” Those words resonate throughout the rest of a film that gets quieter as it goes along, and arrives at the kind of catharsis that only silence can offer; for all of its drifting and dislocation, this is at essence the story of a woman who’s trying to change the subject.
Paced at the speed of personal growth — it falls somewhere between slow cinema and visual ASMR — “The Calming” is true to its title in a way that may limit the size of its audience, but the extent to which Song confronts the anti-commerciality of her work (so much as this gentle movie “confronts” anything) provides a meta-textual tension unto itself. From its opening moments to its final shot, “The Calming” echoes Lin’s uncertainty about how to look at the world, and also see herself reflected in it.
We first meet her in Japan during a tech check for a showing of her latest documentary (or is it an installation?) as she tweaks the brightness levels and contemplates the way that people will watch it. An obvious stand-in for director Song — whose own films exist in the limbo between commercial and curated spaces, whose actual parents once again play those of her fictionalized protagonist, and whose nebulous love life may, for all I know, typify the odd-woman-out singledom that shapes her stories — Lin turns every surface she finds into a screen.
“The Calming” isn’t locked into her gaze (breathtaking panoramic shots of snow-covered train tracks and industrial cityscapes abound), but it’s focused on her relationship to the environment. Long scenes are devoted to Qi sitting on a JR train as it snakes through the pillowy whiteness of Kawabata’s snow country, or resting her head against the window of a taxi cab as it drives through Kowloon. She visits people along the way, and participates in a small handful of professional events, but the specifics of her itinerary go unexplained.
The second half of the film is mostly spent in the Chinese forests where Lin strolls with her parents, the gray sunlight cutting through the trees like a projector beam that spills as far as the eye can see. Song appears to be more interested in the hush of the environment than she is by whatever illness threatens Lin’s father (likely cancer of some kind). But perhaps Lin doesn’t see the same thing in the trees that we do; perhaps she’s looking for the wind.
That kind of stereogram storytelling recalls the film’s most contentious scene: a post-screening Q&A in which a member of the audience asks Lin — in a polite but leading fashion — if her work might not be better-suited for museums, where people wouldn’t be held hostage by its non-narrative slowness (Lin’s forest-based documentary appears to be an even less eventful version of “The Calming”). Lin doesn’t have much of an answer. She can only respond that she prefers the immersion of a cinema, implying that watching something like this in a void can reveal something personal to you about even the most familiar sights. At a different point in the same scene, she talks about how the forest allowed her to make a film that broke away from narrative structures and human culture; “The Calming” invites you to look for something of yourself in the woods, and then it offers you ample opportunity to do just that.
The last 30 minutes of Song’s film also provide you more than enough time to replay other portions of it in your mind. Your thoughts might drift back, as mine did, to an early dinner that Lin shares with the Japanese actress Watanabe Makiko — star of several Sono Sion movies, and also the incredibly titled muscular dystrophy drama “A Banana? At this Time of Night?” — who beams about what a pleasure it is to catch up with the filmmaker away from the hustle of film festivals. “Speaking with you is like a door,” she says in the stunted English that both women share as a second language. “You open… you can show me new points of view. Fresh air.” Lin is someone whose entire being seems lost in translation, but she (and Song, by extension) are understood in that moment.
“The Calming” might sound like a Redbox-worthy piece of schlock — and there are, in fact, several low-rent thrillers and horror movies that share its title — but Song’s version does exactly what it says on the tin. Her films are breaths of fresh air. They’re profiles of women who are waiting to exhale, and only need to remind themselves how. “The Calming” opens the door and waits until Lin is ready to step through it. Perhaps, by then, you’ll be ready to follow in her footsteps.
“The Calming” is playing at the 2020 New York Film Festival, where it will screen virtually from Saturday, September 19 at 8pm ET through Thursday, September 24 at 8pm ET. Tickets are available here.