Reviews Short Narrative

Moment (2022) – 2 stars

Director: Haigao Tang

Writer: Haigao Tang & Mengyao Pan

Cast: Xinhao Xiao, Kaiyuan Luo, Yujie Zhou

Running time: 12mins

The ominously named ‘Exquisite Corpse’ challenge is an age-old drawing challenge, where two or more participants take it in turns drawing segments of a creature’s body, without being able to see what the last person added. It occurs to me that writers Haigao Tang and Mengyao Pan might have tried something similar with the screenplay for Moment – each contributing new developments to a non-linear story, without the other allowing them to see where or what they were continuing from.

Like many Exquisite Corpses, the first features tend to be the most conventional. The story takes place – as the least imaginative student films always do – in a school. But this is the first and last moment I can say I was underwhelmed by the vision of Moment, for better or worse. To their credit, neither writer was short on ideas – it’s just that neither seems to have realised they might need to include some form of expository content to explain them, for the benefit of their co-writer or their audience.

In the classroom, things begin to warp and shift. Two characters who were seated for a lecture suddenly find they’re barricading themselves in the corner, hiding from some unspecified threat. Things momentarily return to normal, before the pair abruptly find themselves barrelling through the woods after dark, fleeing the same threat.

Again they return to reality, before deciding to do an “experiment” – removing the chair their teacher is sitting on from beneath him, without him noticing. The teacher sees the funny side of this, suddenly finding himself sitting on thin-air – and it is here we get as much of an explanation as the movie ever cares to provide. He smiles, suggesting that there is no harm in “a bit of fun”, but that the two boys should be careful using “Moment” too much – or “trying to subvert Moment”.

There isn’t much more to glean from this, or any other exchanges in the film. Broadly, we can conclude Moment is some kind of tool – either technological or chemical – which allows for some kind of bending of time and space. The pair live and re-live several increasingly unhinged scenarios throughout the film, with grislier outcomes the more they ignore their teacher’s advice not to dabble with the paradoxes of Moment – which presumably are staple issues faced by all time-travellers. Avoid overlapping your own timeline; try not to meddle with the way things were to avoid undoing some base element of our current reality; don’t ever jump blindly into a random location, etc.

Whether or not the two main characters are guilty of any of these crimes, and if those crimes might be the cause of the brutality the film’s climax subjects them to, is unclear. As much as Moment’s extremely brief director statement might insist that “Moment, which appears from time to time, is common knowledge to all”, it’s something we have no previous information on; there are no ground-rules, no clear warnings, no use-cases of where it could help to prime us for its potential impacts.

That’s a big problem if you’re going to make a reality-warping sci-fi of any kind. It was a big enough problem for viewers of Inception even when Christopher Nolan overtly and heavy-handedly explained to them what was happening on multiple occasions – with every oaf and their dog bemoaning its supposedly incomprehensible concepts on repeat for the following year. But to take that kind of sci-fi concept, and then have it chaotically unfold on top of itself, without any priming of us to expect as much, means in this case the oafs may have a point.

Personally, I still enjoyed it – albeit in a “balls-to-the-wall-insanity” kind of a way. It’s always a joy to receive a film that is so wilfully ambitious that it begins to collapse under the weight of its own poorly-explained MacGuffin. At the same time, there are elements of the filmmaking which show technical prowess, whatever they are in service for. For example, as director, Haigao Tang has been playing with the aspect ratio: complete with pleasing slide sound-effect, the screen either grows to 16:9 to indicate a return to reality, or focuses down to a cinematic 21:9, in a neat effect to tell us wordlessly that we’re heading into an alternate reality.

Even so, it is impossible to look beyond the utter refusal to walk us through the film’s basic ideas. That may be because this is “known to all” as the director suggests, or because this Exquisite Corpse’s head simply had no idea what its feet were up to. Who can say?

As far as I can tell, this film is enjoyable, if flawed. It is a fun – if confusing – watch, that rips along without concern for how much of it we understand, or what we might think of it afterwards. There is something admirable to such a cavalier attitude. But it also means it’s only really worth your time if you’re looking for a throw-away film watch to stave off boredom.

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