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Shen Kong (Chen Guan, 2021)

Someone following Venice 2021 reviews and tweets from afar could be forgiven for thinking the festival consists of only the main competition, plus a couple of non-competing cineplex titles, and that all of it is gold. Press coverage indistinguishable from PR is endemic in major film festivals, but it has always been particularly grievous in Venice, reaching hysterical heights during this edition. (Cf. the Twitter flood of parodic Dune hot takes emulating the runaway hyperbole of festivalspeak.) In the decade since Alberto Barbera became artistic director, the festival’s main slate has turned into an effective launch pad for the Oscars, while the neglected Horizons sidebar is now a far cry from the treasure trove of envelope-pushing cinema that it was under Barbera’s predecessor Marco Müller. The positive feedback loop isn’t doing the selection any favors.

I don’t want to simply attack the high-profile films that have thus far screened in this year’s main competition—though I’d have plenty to throw at Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Michel Franco’s Sundown, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter—or to give the impression that they’re all terrible. I was pleasantly surprised by Pablo Larraín’s Diana biopic Spencer, whose uncharacteristic tastefulness, inspired gothic touches, and captivating central performance by Kristen Stewart render it incomparable to the loathsome Jackie. And I loved The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s latest “God’s lonely man” reworking. By making Oscar Isaac’s professional gambler a former Abu Ghraib torturer, Schrader extends the character’s existential affliction and his need for redemption to the entire nation. The windowless, interchangeable casinos where most of the film takes place function as a perfect purgatorial synecdoche for a United States that has yet to atone for the War on Terror. That Schrader would once again rip off the finale of Bresson’s Pickpocket was inevitable, but with its winking knowingness and cheesy abandon, this umpteenth iteration is his most sublime yet.

Nevertheless, there’s worthy titles outside of the main competition that could better use the spotlight. For instance Shen Kong, the feature debut by filmmaker Chen Guan, which opened the independent section Giornate degli Autori. Apparently shot guerilla-style in an unidentified Chinese metropolis during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, the film is at once a documentary record of an extraordinary historical moment and a love story whose electrified romanticism harks back to the French New Wave. The deserted cityscape, captured in monumental and desolate drone shots, evokes a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Within this panorama, two young lovers, like a 21st-century Adam and Eve, are free to play, experiment, and dream up a new society to replace the one that has failed them—or to repeat the same mistakes all over again. Like many debuts, Shen Kong can be indulgent and does meander in stretches, but the sheer energy and invention of the mise en scéne, with Yang Zheng’s handheld camerawork sharing in the lovers’ anarchic zeal, conjures a bounty of indelible images and sequences. The lovers even exchange a climactic kiss with face masks on—hers pink, his blue—that somehow doesn’t come off as ridiculous, but instead, as unfathomably tragic.

Yuri Ancarani’s hybrid documentary Atlantide, in the Horizons section, makes for an interesting contrast, presenting a world on the brink of catastrophe. It too focuses on a young couple, played by two non-professionals, who live on one of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, an economically moribund area that offers virtually no prospects to its youth. The guys there spend their days on souped-up motorboats—the aquatic equivalent of street racers, decked out with decals, neon lights, and outrageous sound systems—and the bulk of the film consists of spectacular racing scenes shot at magic hour, following the boats as they streak across the water blasting house and techno. The couple’s narrative actually feels superfluous; the film would work just as well, if not better, as a purely impressionistic documentary portrait. Despite the transporting beauty of the cinematography, the underlying socioeconomic reality remains apparent, conveyed through the boys’ apathy and the futile repetitiveness of what is seemingly their only pastime. And lest anyone fail to appreciate the gravity of their predicament, the extraordinary closing shot renders it inescapable. Ancarani fashions a lo-fi Star Gate sequence by shooting a POV from the front of a boat floating along Venice’s dark canals and flipping the camera on its side. The mirroring effect of the water’s surface, which vertically splits the screen in half, is so disorienting that the image becomes abstract, building to a foreboding, hallucinatory finale.

In Kiro Russo’s El gran movimiento, another rare find in Horizons, three young Bolivian miners come to the city of La Paz after they lose their jobs, and end up living on the streets while seeking work. The cast is entirely made up of non-professionals, who play fictionalized versions of themselves. The film’s portrait of the characters is reminiscent of Pedro Costa’s Ossos (1997) in the way it simultaneously underlines and transcends the squalor of their reality. Shot in somber 16mm, the images seem to be coated in the smog and grime of the crowded city, which Russo frequently photographs from atop the surrounding mountains, alternating between a macro and a micro perspective to situate the miners within the vast and overwhelming urban density. Later, an element of fantasy is introduced through a character named Max, a vagrant with shamanic powers. Although his mysticism is somewhat corny, the magical realist dimension does allow for several terrific sequences. In one, the film bursts out of its gloom when all the actors spontaneously perform a coordinated dance in the streets; in another, the malignant spirit of the city that is haunting one of the miners is given form as an accelerating, dizzying montage of urban snapshots.

Giovanni Marchini Camia is a Berlin-based critic and programmer, and the co-founder of Fireflies Press.