“I’ll only bring you bad luck”
Throw the preconceptions that China would be unwilling to fund a project with dark subject matter such as rape and murder in a contemporary, non-feudal way out the window. According to writer/director Jia Dong Shuo, as long as you have a unique idea to bring to artistic fruition, finances will be available. And with that comes The Floating Shadow, a psychological drama about a young woman incarcerated, shifting back and forth between past and present, dream and reality. Chock full of traumatic events repressed, expressed, or manifested, Jia spoke after his American premiere screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival about how the story itself didn’t hold any real life connection other than a keen interest in psychology and its effect on humanity. Couple that with a month-long stay at a women’s prison near Beijing to understand and get to know the inmates, gleaning facts from their lives, emotions, and misdeeds, and we’re given a seemingly disjointed, non-linear story that soon comes into focus with a discovery of guilt’s power to ravage one’s soul, trapping it into the depths of hell without escape.
It’s through these real life stories that he crafted a tale centering on Zhou Lu (Li Jia), a former grade school teacher who now finds herself in prison, blacking out in rage with odd triggers such as the dark, rain, and dolls. The first quarter of the film can be very disorienting as a result, scenes cutting to and fro as though at random from Lu in jail to her in school to her as a little girl at home. I started to question whether in fact the woman shown was supposed to be the same woman at all. Was she hallucinating the school sequences, but really walking through prison in a daze? Were those days in her past, living happily with her husband Wang (Jiang Wu), real or imagined? Only when Officer Hao (Shen Ao Jun) steps in, assigned Lu’s case to find out what sort of mental issue has been causing her psychotic breaks of violence, does the timeline begin to find clarity. It’s in Lu’s memories, the stories of her mother, father, stepfather, and husband, that this non-linear presentation makes sense.
Secrets locked into the deepest recesses of her mind are coaxed to the surface, mental breaks—helped by the score’s sudden silence and a virtual click causing her eyes to move for the kill—become more frequent, and a history of abuse is uncovered. The facts add up in their way, but with discrepancies and questions. Why did Lu’s mother take on a new husband just six months after the horrific accidental death of her father? Why were the two women estranged for twenty years, the mother in jail herself for a crime committed against her second husband on her daughter’s behalf? Why was this woman condemned to solitude rather than showered with thanks? And what has happened to Wang? How could this kindhearted man who lights up whenever his wife is around not visit her in her time of need? Even more obvious, what did Lu do to get arrested in the first place? Jia does well to not reveal any of the answers until absolutely necessary, giving us just enough information to pique our interest and keep with it.
Even little side plots like an about to be released elderly woman watering her never blossoming plant and cultivating a missing motherly bond with Lu helps us comprehend her delicate psyche. Because that is what The Floating Shadow is all about—deciphering this woman’s repressed past in order to understand her chaotic present and hopefully cure her enough to return to society. Revelations of rape, child abuse, murder, and memories of each triggering reactions that continue the cycle of violence are shared as Lu adopts a sense of trust in Hao, willing to tell this woman who for some reason cares what happens to her. This police psychologist can relate on some level having parental issues of her own, recently putting her father in a nursing home and experiencing his anger in doing so when he was coherent enough, only to become catatonic again from dementia. But when he’s no longer conscious of the ‘injustice’, his silence only adds to Hao’s pain, never able to erase the phone message of his biting acrimony. Therefore, inmate and captor connect from this common bond of emotional turmoil.
Hao needs to solve Lu’s puzzle to rationally keep sane. If there were circumstances that led this woman to do what she did, then her own desire to break with reality may be stifled back as these two are very similar in their compassion and attitudes. The glimpses of Lu’s past show us a woman incapable of malicious intent, yet the flashback of said incident, spliced with memories pushing into her head, shows the anger replacing the humanity normally present. She recalls her students, she plays piano on the shadow of jail cell bars cast onto the floor, and shows capacity for love when telling the elderly cellmate that she will continue her tradition of watering the plant. Everything bad that occurs to Lu is rooted in memory not from want. Even her destroying a fellow inmate’s doll—a gift given by the woman’s son—harkens to the past, the toys signifying misfortune and bad luck having became a totem for evil in accordance with what happened when she asked her father for one as a child. All that pain storms within and until it’s recognized and eventually accepted, it will continue to boil to the surface, trapping her forever.
courtesy of Tianjin Film Studio