Thursday, March 16, 2017

ND/NF ’17: The Future Perfect

Pretty much the first step to assimilation is learning the local language. The national customs and values will not necessarily follow, but just having a frame of reference shaped by the lingua franca can change your outlook. At least that is the experience of a seventeen-year-old Chinese immigrant to Argentina in Nele Wohlatz’s The Future Perfect (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

After years of separation, Xiaobin’s parents have finally brought her over to Buenos Aires. She never says exactly how long they have been apart, but this is the first time she has met her five-ish-year-old sister. Frankly, it is not an especially tearful reunion. They just want her to work. Possibly, they might also arrange a marriage with another Chinese immigrant, but they expect her lead the sort of insular unassimilated life they have accepted.

Yet, despite her initial difficulties, Xiaobin might actually like living in Buenos Aires (though her poker face makes it hard to say with absolute certainty). Regardless, she resolves to learn Spanish after getting summarily fired from a grocery deli for her lack of fluency. It turns out to be a fruitful decision, because her lessons also give Xiaobin a social network, beyond Vijay, the young expatriate Indian computer programmer deli customer, who takes an instant interest in her.

With incredible subtlety, Wohlatz blends the class’s stilted conversation exercises with apparently real life. Slowly but surely, Xiaobin and her classmates meet for coffee or enjoy the local sites, exchanging basic but grammatically correct pleasantries (which can indeed be pleasant). The film’s tense also shifts with the lessons being taught in class, starting with Xiaobin relating her backstory in the past tense as part of an oral exam and ending with her speculating on her possible futures.

It all sounds very stiff and effected, but Zhang Xiaobin makes it work, thanks to her wonderful natural performance. She is scrupulously reserved (some might say deadpan), but Zhang always projects a sense of alertness and intelligence under the guarded façade (which the immigrant teen is undoubtedly entitled to).

Globalization gets a bad rap, but Future Perfect, a film helmed by a German expat about a Mandarin speaking Chinese teen acclimating to Argentina, demonstrates how multinational synergies can produce challenging and idiosyncratic results. Xiaobin’s future remains uncertain, as it must always be, but it is rewarding to watch her take small but steady strides and develop options.

Future Perfect is truly a film of offbeat charm. It is quite highly recommended, but its sixty-five-minute running time makes theatrical distribution challenging (perhaps some adventurous distributor could put it on a double-bill with Sanaz Azari’s fifty-minute language-themed I for Iran). ND/NF pairs it with Wohlatz’s four-minute short Three Sentences About Argentina, which also takes the form of a language lesson, but represents a more formal, intellectual exercise. In any event, anyone interested in The Future Perfect should make a point of seeing it when it screens this Saturday (3/18) at MoMA and Monday (3/20) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2017.