Zhang Lu’s The Shadowless Tower

Xin Baiqing in Zhang Lu’s The Shadowless Tower (2023)

Since premiering in competition in Berlin back in February, Zhang Lu’s The Shadowless Tower has been quietly winning over festival audiences in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, where Zhang won awards for Best Artistic Contribution and Screenplay, Piao Songri won Best Cinematography, and Xin Baiqing won Best Actor for his portrayal of Gu Wentong, a middle-aged restaurant critic who gave up writing poetry years ago. This weekend and next, the New York Film Festival will host the North American premiere.

A third-generation ethnic Korean, Zhang was a novelist of some renown in China when he met and became good friends with Lee Chang-dong (Burning) at a writers’ conference. At thirty-eight, Zhang was teaching Chinese Literature at Yanbian University and writing screenplays when he fell out with a Chinese director he refuses to name and took up that director’s challenge to make a film of his own. With Lee’s help, Zhang completed his first short, Eleven (2000), which premiered in competition in Venice. More shorts and documentaries followed, and The Shadowless Tower is Zhang’s thirteenth fictional feature.

When Gu Wentong’s mother died, she left him a tiny two-room apartment in Xicheng, the district in Beijing dominated by the White Pagoda, a thirteenth-century Buddhist temple that seemingly casts no shadow. According to legend, though, it does; it’s just that the shadow falls two thousand miles away in Tibet. “Shot by Piao Songri in low angles that turn it into a looming spacecraft, the White Pagoda doesn’t simply double as a synecdoche for a city uneasily poised between the old and the new,” writes Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage. “It’s the architectural embodiment of a man perched between stasis and restlessness.”

Divorced, Gu has lately been hanging with the lively photographer he’s been working with, Ouyang (Huang Yao). She’s twenty-five, though, and he’s in his mid-forties, so they aren’t rushing anything. Gu also has a young daughter, Smiley (Wang Yiwen), and with her absent mother’s consent, she’s more or less being raised by Gu’s sister, Wenhui (Li Qinqin), and her husband, Li Jun (Wang Hongwei). When this unconventional foursome visits the grave of Gu and Wenhui’s mother, they discover that someone has recently left flowers there.

Li Jun discreetly tells his brother-in-law that he’s pretty sure he knows who. When Gu was five, his father was accused of molesting a woman on a bus, and his mother tossed him out of their home. All these years, Gu’s father has been biking the three hundred miles from his seaside home to Beijing to secretly catch glimpses of his son, daughter, and granddaughter. Li slips Gu his father’s address and number, and Ouyang encourages Gu to make a stab at reconciliation.

At Slant, Jake Cole picks up on a metatextual stroke in Zhang’s casting Fifth Generation Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang as Gu’s father, Yunlai—who, it turns out, may never have crossed a line with that woman on the bus all those years ago. Throughout most of the 1990s, the Chinese government, objecting to the political thrust of Tian’s early work—The Blue Kite (1993) in particular, which was banned outright—kept Tian from working, and his career has never fully recovered.

Tian “plays Yunlai with a resignation to a past that cannot be changed and a quiet commitment to salvaging a future that feel, in their own way, as strident and impassioned as the filmmaking work that derailed his once-bright career,” writes Cole. “The Shadowless Tower spends much of its 140 minutes neck-deep in ennui, but the tentative efforts at rapprochement between a father and son belatedly justify the inviting warmth of Piao Songri’s cinematography as an undercurrent of hope that refuses to accept alienation as a permanent condition of contemporary life.”

“And if editor Liu Xinzhu’s rhythms seem a little formless at first,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety, “that’s deceptive: As The Shadowless Tower ambles onward, it reveals its arcs of change not in dramatic showdowns or sudden revelations, but in ellipses, in the occasional mysterious fold in chronology, and most rewardingly, in the casual, unforced repetition of certain motifs.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney may find The Shadowless Tower to be “unhurried to a fault,” but for Patrick Gamble at Little White Lies, it’s “perfectly paced and intricately structured.” The film is, “at its core,” writes Leonardo Goi, “a tale of people struggling to latch onto something (or someone), to plant their roots, to find meaning and purpose in the invisible lattice that keeps us bound to those we love and the places we share with them.”

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