‘The Shadowless Tower’ Review: Circling Regret in Old Beijing

Time can have a curious ebb and flow in “The Shadowless Tower,” a ruminative Chinese drama in which the past intrudes on — and at times overwhelms — the present. For its middle-age protagonist, time can seem to drift, much as he does. On occasion, it almost stops dead, partly because he seems stuck in limbo. A poet turned filmmaker, a husband turned divorcé, a son turned orphan, our hero is caught between who he once was and who he has become.

It seems fitting then that the first time you see Gu Wentong (Xin Baiqing) it’s at a cemetery, a space where the living visit the dead (and sometimes vice versa). He has come with several relatives, including his young daughter, to honor his mother. On reaching her grave, though, they are surprised to see that someone has left a bouquet of yellow flowers on it, a flash of bright color (one that the movie associates with family) and an act that confounds them, given she didn’t have other relatives. The bouquet soon becomes the first piece in a larger puzzle involving Gu Wentong’s long-estranged parents as well as his own sense of self.

Set in contemporary Beijing, the story emerges elliptically, as does Gu Wentong. He’s a quiet, somewhat reserved man with glasses and a stooped posture that suggest he’s read most of the books in the cramped, near-monastic bedroom that serves as his primary living space. It’s one of two bedrooms in his mother’s old apartment, a spartan space that he shares with a renter, a younger, openly unhappy man who’s trying to make it as a model. It’s instructive that there doesn’t seem to be a place for Gu Wentong’s daughter to sleep (there’s a bunk bed in the renter’s room); she’s being reared by his sister and brother-in-law.

The despondent renter is one of a number of doubles that materialize in “The Shadowless Tower” as the story takes shape. The writer-director Zhang Lu (“Yanagawa,” “Desert Dream”) touches on a number of pungent, interconnected themes here, including family, nostalgia and loss. The movie offers a snapshot of present-day Beijing, for instance, with its washes of gray-blue, brightly lit nights and soaring glass-and-steel high rises. Yet even as that modern city comes into hazy view, another, Beijing does, too, creating what is effectively a superimposed picture of the capital, one that features old brick buildings, human-scaled narrow streets and the dazzling white 13th-century Buddhist temple that gives “The Shadowless Tower” its title.

The temple towers above Gu Wentong’s neighborhood, functioning as a reminder of his childhood — he grew up in the district — and as an emblem of the permanence missing from his life. Despite flashes of humor, the movie is saturated with a sense of loss. Some of this has to do with his father, Gu Yunlai (sensitively played by the great Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang), who re-enters his son’s life after a painful, decades-long separation. The son doesn’t approach the father at first, but instead sneaks into his apartment, which turns out to be a shabbier, lonelier, even sadder twin of Gu Wentong’s own place.

The story’s obliqueness encourages you to make connections that Zhang at times seems reluctant to overstate. When Gu Wentong first visits his father’s apartment, he meanders around it, then pops a videocassette into a VCR. The movie that begins playing is “Crows and Sparrows,” a Chinese film that was released in 1949, the year Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Sometime later, Gu Wentong and one of the two women he’s been circling (politely, hopelessly) attend a retrospective screening of a film featuring Shangguan Yunzhu, one of the stars of “Crows and Sparrows.”

These nods to China’s history deepen the air of melancholy, creating a sense of pervasive regret and disappointment. For its part, the son-father relationship pushes the story into a warmer register and also makes more sense (psychologically and otherwise) than Gu Wentong’s flirtations with two different women. The central one is with Ouyang Wenhui (a vivid Huang Yao), a pixieish charmer whose interest in this tamped-down man remains a mystery. Like his father, she awakens something both in Gu Wentong and in “The Shadowless Tower.” Unlike him, though, this movie opens itself to you with its feeling for people, its grace notes and a few bravura moments that close the distance between characters beautifully.

The Shadowless Tower
Not Rated. Running time 2 hours 24 minutes. In theaters.

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