Director: Galenus Zhou, Jia Jie Lin & Ze Cong Kuang
Writer: Ze Cong Kuang
Cast: Ji Ke Li, Hong Bo Zou
Running time: 21mins
Galenus Zhou’s films are ambitious to a fault. In both the examples the young filmmaker has submitted to Indy Film Library, his media-literate philosophical musings have both delighted and confounded.
In the cyclical nightmare of Again and Again, he asked us to think about the horror in the endless deteriorating repetition of our daily lives – every day the same, just a little worse – via a series of beautifully shot vignettes, in an abandoned warehouse with only a flickering neon light to guide us. However, the volatile mode of editing he selected jerked audiences back and forth, and stood in the way during the moments when they were clearly being primed to think about something.
In Galenus Zhou’s second effort – in collaboration with co-directors Jia Jie Lin and Ze Cong Kuang – those issue are still present, but with an added issue. While director of photography Haofei Li and art director Yaoxin Huang have helped to construct some devastatingly beautiful imagery, amid another series of dilapidated slums, the film feels almost hostile toward its lead actors whenever they enter the frame.
One particularly frustrating scene sees lead character Yi (Ji Ke Li) being spoken to by one of his repair shop’s regular customers. Yi never looks up from the moped which he is busy reviving – the red and blue-white lights of the vehicle bathing the otherwise disheveled room in a fluorescent glow – while the person addressing him is largely out of shot. The sound recording is distant, as though the voices are coming to us from the other side of a door. With Yi so clearly unengaged, and the sound recording so poor, the blocking leaves us to assume we are overhearing someone else’s conversation. Only when the other participant enters the frame, and Yi responds with some kind of hostility, does the opposite become clear. We were supposed to hear every word. Worse, we needed to hear every word because, as with Again and Again, this is a non-linear fever-dream of a film, where we are asked to decipher for ourselves if anything we see is even ‘real’.
The blocking of scenes continues in this way throughout the production. The camera comes to rest in some gorgeous corner of the room, framing something which would ordinarily be drab or dirty in such a way that makes it catch the light and bring out its hidden beauty. Then the humans shuffle in from the corners of the image, often obscured by parts of the set or sitting frustratingly to the left of the frame – making it feel as though all three directors determined that showing us what is happening is less important than how nicely their DOP could film a piece of drywall.
It is unfortunate, because I do like Yesterday ended last night. I just wanted to like it a whole lot more. The central relationship between down-on-his-luck Yi and Mei (Hong Bo Zou), the daughter of a problem-gambler, is sweet and relatable – and the cinematography is constrained enough during their time together to enhance, rather than obscure, what is going on. Just as the lighting of the grizzled streets and abandoned apartments they frequent brings out the hidden beauty of the place, the interactions of two people – beaten down and belittled by the grey world around – shine a light on the kindness and beauty within them.
Yesterday ended last night is full of promise. Its directors seem determined to push boundaries of storytelling beyond the conventional means through which a story like this would usually have been told – breathing new life into what could have been a pedestrian boy-meets-girl scenario. Its cinematographers are capable of painting with light in the truest sense of the term. Its actors are committed and convincing, helping us invest emotionally in what is going on. But to deliver on the promise of these facets, Yesterday ended last night needed to find a way to balance them all. As it is, it feels like its storytelling is at war with its visual elements.