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MOVIE REVIEW
Absence (2023)

As an exercise in nihilism, the scene where a lobster is cooked alive on a grill by being steamed under a silver serving bowl while someone sings "it may seem like utter despair" takes some beating. Unfortunately this nasty little sequence is the best thing about “Absence,” a grotty Chinese movie about second chances, how a lack of housing warps lives and the different forms betrayal can take. Its concern with affordable housing and the weather brought it to the Berlinale, but unfortunately it doesn’t know how to answer any of its own questions.

Han Jiangyu (Lee Kang-sheng), whom everyone calls Mr. Yu, has just finished a 10-year prison stretch for the benefit of a property developer who has since died. The developer’s dodgy son, Kai (Ren Ke), is well aware of the debt he owes, but Mr. Yu has lost his taste for the unspecified dirty work he used to specialize in. Off the coast, on a little island only accessible by ferry, lives a hairdresser named Su Hong (Li Meng). She isn't a local, which means she's barred from buying property on the island unless she doubles the deposit that she's already paid to Kai's company. Because she has to work so much her small daughter, Yao (Liang Wanling), has the freedom to come and go as she pleases. Mr. Yu is Yao's father, though they have never met; how he and Hong met in the first place isn't explained either (a silly plot hole, at least in the subtitles). When Mr. Yu reappears Hong makes it crystal clear he’s not welcome. Until the rent comes due again, that is.

How Mr. Yu and Hong solve their housing dilemma is via strange choices that add up to more atmosphere than coherent plot. There's also a typhoon coming - the barometric pressure here felt as keenly as it is in “The Salt in Our Waters” - which means the movie shifts from being a sort of thriller into a mood piece about how a home is created. The island is covered with abandoned half-built properties, but it's also a jungle; and the trees and animals have a way of taking back the space. Empty concrete structures make terrific animal pens; and there's an unforgettable shot of the family staring in bewilderment at hundreds of goats, several stories up.

Writer-director Wu Lang and cinematographer Deng Xu have an unusually ruthless eye; just look at the mirror work done in the little bedroom mother and daughter share, the car shot which focuses on the reflections in the windshield instead of the people in the car, or at how the camera holds on a group dinner from the staircase, as if we were waiting for an invite to join them. But unfortunately all this beauty and cleverness doesn't make up for a plot which resolves none of its own central questions, and which blows the ending.

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