Some filmmakers pay careful attention to pacing. A bored audience is a lost audience, after all. Others just tell their story, hoping viewers will come along for the ride. There’s nothing wrong with the latter approach, but it needs to be handled well. With the New York Film Festival title The Calming, that is decidedly not the case. While it’s undeniably nice to look at and does offer a calming presence (the name isn’t false advertising, one has to give it that), the absolutely glacial pacing and lack of anything resembling forward momentum cripples the movie. Even with a slim running time, at a certain point, it becomes hard not to check out. Simply put, it just does not work.
The Calming wants to put you in a certain mood. To be sure, the concept of stasis looms large here, both in terms of creative stasis and also a personal kind. The inciting incident, story-wise, is the end of a relationship, but that’s barely concentrated on. It doesn’t work as a breakup story, nor does it work as a travelogue. The ingredients for one or both are there, at least in broad strokes, but it quickly becomes apparent that nothing of that sort will be the case here. By the time that realization takes hold, it’s too late, and this flick is past the point of any redemption.
Plot is an afterthought here, though ostensibly it’s a breakup movie. Lin Tong (Xi Qi) is a documentary filmmaker who has recently had a relationship come to an end. Uninterested in talking about her ex, she does instead opt to begin a long trip, hoping to not just find herself, but also a new creative spark. Taking her from Japan to locations like China and Hong Kong, she explores the world while looking for, well…something.
As Lin drifts from location to location, the camera just lingers with her, observing her as she’s observing nature or a vibrant metropolis. The more she travels, the less she speaks, with her silence supposedly telling us all we need to know. Except, it just doesn’t. If it sounds like this is a paper-thin narrative, well, it really is.
Filmmaker Fang Song completely disregards what might be considered “accessible” in crafting this tale. There’s no attention given to who her protagonist is, leaving us as casual observers. The Calming is almost designed to lull you into a zen-like state, just without any of the pleasure that something like an ASMR video might produce. Here, it’s just boredom, indifference, puzzlement, or some combination of the three.
The performance from Xi Qi is admirable, to be sure, just fully in vain. Watching her drift along initially is intriguing, but before long, you realize that there really isn’t any “there” there, which is incredibly frustrating. The camera loves her, that much is clear, and while Song puts her front and center, the lack of anything to grab on to eventually makes it impossible to care what she’s up to. With even a little bit more effort given into making her accessible, this could have been a compelling character study. Instead, it’s an endurance test.
All but the most patient of viewers will struggle mightily with The Calming. That’s a generous assessment, too, considering how hard a pill this is to swallow. NYFF likes to schedule mood pieces like this each year, but usually they’re better than this one. There have been worse ones over the years, too, so don’t look at this as any sort of an atrocity. It’s simply a glacially paced drama without nearly enough drama to make the juice worth the squeeze.