A lobster lies atop a skillet while kettles of boiling water are poured over it. Its limbs stop writhing and it is split in preparation. Han Jiangyu (Lee Kang-Sheng) later asks his boss, Chen Kai (Ren Ke), if he thinks lobsters have souls. Kai, a property developer, says they are soulless, existing only for human consumption. There is a party commemorating Yu’s release after ten years in prison. He walks into a job with Kai, for whose father he evidently took a fall. Skyscrapers have shot up in Yu’s absence, making Kai wealthy beyond sense.
Yu gets his hair cut at a salon run by Su Hong (Li Meng). He later returns, awkwardly milling about with cakes purchased for the stylist’s daughter Yao Yao (Liang Wanling). “Yao isn’t your child,” the stylist declares as she waves Yu away. Hong and her daughter live in such cramped quarters that they share a bed. Hong has put down a deposit for a flat in one of the new buildings sprouting in the city. Yu and Hong will be brought together when she is informed of the possibility of losing the deposit.
What their history might have been prior to the opening of the film is left unaddressed. What little we learn of the past comes sparingly, most often off-hand or, in the case of Yu’s relationship to Kai’s father, as a legal threat. Absence, Wu Lang’s debut feature, is mired in an interminable present tipping towards a precarious future. Lang’s pacing and images are remarkably assured. The events depicted in the film might feel at home in the work of Jia Zhangke, but Absence lacks his acute sense of shifting times and places. Where his countryman works along the (diminishing) border between documentary and fiction, Lang’s compositions attest to a sculptural, geometric gaze.
Hong is told she will have an easier time securing her flat if she were married. She proposes marriage to Yu, explicitly limiting the relationship to the duration of this practical necessity. In one of the richest images in the film, they pose for their marriage portrait. He is ebullient; she is absent. These two sequences – the proposal and the portrait – suggest what is otherwise left unsaid about their shared past. For Yu, marriage is the culmination of a decade’s yearning. For Hong, it is a return to a long-abandoned past. We do not know who they are to one another, but these few images carry more than memory.
Reality crashes into Hong when the construction of her building ceases, leaving future residents without either their deposits or their homes. Kai, Yu’s boss, has disappeared, leaving Yu to contend with further legal suspicion. What was meant as a temporary solution turns into mutual desperation. Having lost their livelihood in the present (Yu without a job; Hong in arrears on her rent), the new couple drags their meagre positions into the concrete corpse of a derelict building. If the desperation is quiet, it is because they are smothered in the margins of historic modernisation. The outcome is implicit from the opening, where the conceited Kai, oversees the delivery of his new drum set. Now, Yao not only shares a bed with her mother, but with a father of convenience.
There are images in Absence fraught with symbolic weight, usually involving the presence of animals. Alongside the lobster, there is a litter of kittens, tadpoles swimming in a dirty pool, and, stumbling into the closing image, a young goat. Despite the heavy-handed dialogue about the souls of lobsters, Wu Lang has the good sense to not dwell on cliché. All one need say about the film is illustrated by wind-blown curtains draped over drab concrete.
Absence will screen at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute (IFI) Friday, March 31st as part of the East Asia Film Festival Ireland (www.eaffi.ie).