By Courtney Duckworth

Inertia implies stillness, but more precisely it means that without intervention any body resists change. The word conjures ceaseless motion as much as it does stasis—someone who cannot go on, or someone who can do nothing else. Something of this semantic tension imbues The Calming, writer-director Song Fang’s ascetic second feature. Lin (Qi Xi), also a filmmaker, neither works nor rests but drifts, boarding buses and trains, wandering verdurous forests and lamplit, unpeopled streets, across Tokyo, Niigata, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Nanjing. Now and then she sojourns with loved ones or promotes her latest film about trees: life forms that likewise commingle rootedness and sway. Images of trees bookend The Calming: first a digital still projected onto a gallery wall—Lin asks the technicians to dim the brightness, a cue to her gloom—and later, through her apartment window, a frame-filling outlook of leafy branches, tossed by susurrous winds. Representation has resolved into the real. In between elapse no births, deaths, passions, eruptions, or farewells, simply a woman’s subtle self-return, as hushed and ordinary as frost steaming up from the spring earth.

There is one disclosure, however, that risks overdetermining the whole: Lin and her longtime boyfriend have split. Near the beginning, she tips off the curator of her Japanese exhibit (Ichiyama Shozo, The Calming’s co-producer alongside Jia Zhangke) because he introduced the pair and would painfully presume them to be together. Otherwise she elides or demurs. Specifics of their separation, further contours of character, or traces so scant as a stumbled-upon photograph remain remote, kept intimate since unshared. “When you lose someone, there is no help from other people,” said Song at the film’s Berlinale premiere. “You have to deal with it yourself.” Rather than coax sham affect from the minutest gesture, The Calming hollows out sentiment for something more subdued and internal. Lin is merely learning to unsee an absence and, in turn, to reinhabit her own, unornamented presence.

Whereas the healing of a wound lends gradients of plum and yolk-yellow to mark time’s passage, sorrows of the heart resist easy rendering. Mostly we watch Lin look. Cinematographer Lu Songye’s compositions are pellucid and matter-of-fact, the palette a perpetual overcast, the camera stationary and restrained, detaching Lin’s willowy form from human activity. As Lin, Qi Xi assumes a slackened, unselfconscious expression. Often even her face is withheld. Our eyes accustom to the inky oval of her hair as she stands sleepless against the glittering Tokyo skyline, seeming small and tenuous, or cranes her head curiously inside a lucent shop, where a crowd throngs around something out of view. Such shots throw her seclusion into sharp relief yet also foreground a generous attention to her surroundings, the artist ardently absorbed by the world. While in Japan, Lin dines with an actress (Watanabe Makiko) who describes her as “an open door”—a conduit to interior life. Throughout, door jambs and windows confine or cocoon Lin’s body, subject to perspective; whether you read in this staging loneliness or solitude, the camera’s directness suggests neither state is fixed, that Lin merely is, suspended in an atmosphere of waiting.

The Calming understands the untangling of grief as durational, a season to be endured. One scene has a hospital nurse warn Lin, briefly febrile in a non-event that rings fantastical in the thick of COVID-19, “The speed of the drip is set. Don’t try to alter it.” That is, she must slow to the pace of her cure. Meanwhile the minutes heave and accrue like silent snowfall. The temporal dilations that compose The Calming have already been compared to those of Chantal Akerman, whose Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), about a peripatetic filmmaker roaming ashen, war-lacerated Europe, supplies a clear ancestor. Song, however, compresses her potential autofiction down to a steady drone, spurning the way Anna, supine in bed, lapses into malaise. (Significantly, Anna’s queerness underpins her misfit.) Here, mundanities are stretched and strung together into a more tranquil rhythm, though the takes themselves aren’t especially long, as if Lin quests each environment for some solace and, when it cannot be found, shifts elsewhere.

In her silence Lin encounters heady textures of sound. Designer Zhang Yang delicately interweaves grasses sloughing in the breeze, the muted hum of cabs whirring through traffic, and the distorted, cloying melodies of television music, then amplifies each as if to make us hear them again for the first time. Absent the bustle, Lin luxuriates in the visceral pleasures of the senses. In parallel, she’s reluctant to communicate her innermost thoughts with friends or family, instead seeking out nature as an originary site of experience without the pressures and demands of people. On one of these ambles, Lin passes through a natural arch of curving trees, subsumed in shadow; the camera, intent to follow her for almost every other frame, here captures the landscape until her disappearance from it, and then some seconds after, while wind whips the branches. I cannot say why this image quickened my heart except that The Calming taught me, too, how to listen more closely.

Taking everything in equally, Lin is blind to what will stick. Despite or perhaps because of their plainness, the film’s images rhyme like chords across scenes, recasting their meaning via the trick of retrospect. Say, a bird taking flight from a snow-draped conifer, high and free but a solitary dot in a white sky, and then, outside Lin’s parents’ home, a piled nest proffering protection. Or Lin donning rubber gloves to scrub every surface of her new apartment. Cut to her screening for a fellow filmmaker her footage of an unnamed ritual performed to welcome blessings: “They spend a lot of time preparing things,” Lin explains. “Everything is washed thoroughly.” One wonders what blessings she anticipates, what hopes are stored. After the same colleague tells her he’s engaged, Lin walks the cold city alone and, turning round at the roadside, glimpses a man and woman together tending a fire. Throughout, a figurative pattern gathers as Lin recalibrates her existence without a structuring presence, dissolving the symbolic distance between what she sees and how she feels.

Buried within The Calming is an observation, if not a Jia-style critique, of how modern atomization ruptures a sense of community. Song’s 2012 debut, Memories Look at Me, was spun out of conversations the director, playing herself, had with her aging parents, who resurface in The Calming as Lin’s. There the mother frets over the isolation of her daughter’s urban existence, a concern taken up here. In Hong Kong, Lin visits a dear friend, who she hasn’t seen in years. Murmurings of a changed flight reveal the two keep missing each other, losing touch in a distant world. Lin’s mother echoes this when, gazing out her window, she notes schoolchildren being escorted by an elderly couple, in absence of parents too pressurized by work. No one has time for each other; to take time, as Lin does in happening upon an excess of it, is an act of love. Indeed, there is a melancholy beauty in the sections where Lin cares for her parents—she is an only child, another pang—above all when her father falls ill, and in quiet concert Lin and her mother brew porridge, hang laundry, and monitor his condition with tender anxiety. Meanwhile Lin must follow from her sequestered hospital bed the sight of a young girl helped up by a relative, a support of which she is not assured.

But it is in the scenes with her parents that Lin enlivens, her posture more playful and visage more intricately expressive, noting everything around them as the three stroll a bamboo forest and pond. Glancing out over uninhabited nature, her mother recalls she snuck off to the park as a child and asks her truant daughter how she spent those stolen days. Lin answers, “Stared into space, listened to music, dozed off,” a not-inaccurate catalogue of her pastimes in The Calming. The child had it right all along. Later, they remember that Lin, as a child, threw herself into the snow and left an imprint of her body behind—in other words, she immersed herself in experience and created a residue, an image. Something like this has occurred here, too. Nothing has changed. Lin’s life is not better or worse, only after. But in the end, in an act that refashions the film’s arc, she picks up a pencil and writes, a scratching that overlays the credits, leaving us behind. Inertia gives way to change.

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