Reviews Short Narrative

Mirage Though Light (2022) – 4 stars

Director: Gloria Haoyu Guo

Writer: Gloria Haoyu Guo

Cast: Bingxue Ye, Zheng Yue, Guohi Cai, Di Cheng

Running time: 8mins

Making a film about the differences between Asian languages which still resonates with a ‘Western’ audience is obviously tricky. Pitfalls abound, with critics all too ready to phone in their reviews by simply declaring the project was ‘lost in translation.’ No such easy payday on this occasion though.

Instead, I have to congratulate Gloria Haoyu and her team on the impeccably realised little story they have produced. Mirage Through Light is a well-paced, enclosed story which plays on one of those moments that plagues the adult mind from here until the grave: the missed opportunity. No matter how happy we may be in the moment, there is always a glimmer of distant disappointment lurking somewhere in our memories, ready to torment us at a random, sleepless hour.

Beware, there are spoilers ahead. If you would like to see this film in all its glory (when it features in our Student Shorts Showcase in November), feel free to leave at this point, in the knowledge this is a skilfully executed short-film, delivering a self-contained narrative with an effective twist in just under nine minutes.

In this case, a young man working on the docks sees a young woman, who is photographing the windswept surroundings during the golden hour. Her red jumper highlights her amid the grey-blue hues of the sky and the water, while the sun’s rays reflect from its surface to lend her face an effervescent radiance (Hongfei Cheng’s cinematography deserves special credit for this).

Finally, he strikes up the courage to speak to her – though his nerves are apparent throughout the distinctly one-way discussion. Seemingly without taking a breath, he unleashes an unending stream of pleasantries and small-talk, without taking the time to find out anything about the object of his desire – something any survivor of the dating scene knows is a bit of a faux pas.

Despite this, the woman’s face never suggests anything to him other than polite encouragement. She smiles, maintains eye-contact, and sits while apparently listening intently to everything he says. From where we are sitting, she seems to be hanging on every word. But just as things seem to be going so well, a nearby tannoy booms that the last ferry will be leaving soon – a ferry that the young woman needs to depart on.

Undeterred, the young man makes his final play – stating he will return to this dock at the same time every day, at which point the pair can continue their chat. She smiles, and silently departs.

It is here that Gloria Haoyu Guo deploys a particularly savvy change of direction – making a closing gambit of her own. Sitting on the ferry next to her friend, the young woman recounts the story of having just been approached by a young man… in Japanese. The young tourist is on her way home, and reveals that she did not understand much of what he had to say, because her Mandarin is not very good. Suddenly, the polite smile and silent stare have a very different meaning – while the fact our leading man did not take the time to learn anything about this young woman becomes tinged with a tragic comedy.

It is a very gentle skewering of a kind of patriarchal arrogance exhibited subconsciously by many men on the look-out for hetero-normative coupling; hey, I’m pretty amazing, all I need to do is show a woman she could have me, and the rest will fall into place. Bugger finding out about her! Well, in this case, there’s a laugh at one man’s expense for this oversight – however endearingly timid he may have been.

At the same time, there is a kind of sadness at play. Gloria Haoyu Guo’s script retains a level of empathy, by having the young woman realising what probably just happened when a romantic song – which her would-be suitor just described – plays on the radio. She wanders out to the deck of the ferry, and stares out across the shimmering waters, to where a young man will fruitlessly await her return for who knows how many days or weeks.

It’s an excellent twist, which ties up the story as an unexpected dead-end – but without sacrificing tonal nuance or emotional complexity. It is made all the more compelling by the performances of the two leads, who are fantastic at communicating their feelings to the audience, both verbally and physically. The young man carries an excited energy, blended with a very visible fear of rebuttal, that mean as one-sided as his conversation was, he remains a relatable figure – especially when we use his situation as a springboard to examine our own stupid mistakes in our early love-lives. Meanwhile, the young woman’s confusion and ambiguous responses are what really makes the twist work – and her slow-burning concern for the man she will never see again leaves us to wonder what might have been if things had gone differently.

It would have been nice to be able to determine who exactly these actors were, considering they did such a fine job. Unfortunately, one of my key concerns with this film – as is often the case with indy films – is that it is inadequately credited. The actors’ names appear, but without characters next to them – so the two in question could be anyone out of “Bingxue Ye, Zheng Yue, Guohi Cai and Di Cheng”. Considering this is a student film, from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, it seems especially problematic that the young actors may struggle to gain attention from casting directors due to this misstep.

The other, very minor, note I have is that the film’s English title isn’t perfect. Mirage Though Light seems much less fitting than《转梦无踪》– which Google Translate suggests to me means Dream Without a Trace. After all, when the young man returns to the dock tomorrow, or the next day, his dream of happiness with that quiet young woman is doomed to vanish.

All in all, Mirage Though Light is an impressive piece of work – efficient, well-balanced, and emotionally mature. It’s a project which reminds me of the great potential that student cinema has, having created a platform for different individuals to display their talents in a wonderfully orchestrated collective – and Gloria Haoyu Guo should take great credit for having conducted it so cohesively.

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