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KARLOVY VARY 2024 Proxima

Review: Stranger


- In his sophomore work of fiction, Yang Zhengfan beckons us into hotel rooms for seven vignettes, but unfortunately the film slightly outstays its welcome

Review: Stranger

Hotel rooms can feel like places of estrangement, but also like temporary homes. They are both generic and idiosyncratic, different in type and sort, but the same in nature. Hotel rooms, and the brief insights into life happening inside them, are the topic of Yang Zhengfan’s fourth feature-length work and his second fiction feature, Stranger [+see also:
interview: Zhengfan Yang
film profile
, which has just world-premiered in the Proxima Competition at the Karlovy Vary IFF.

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The rules of the game are simple: we get to see seven vignettes, each shot in a single, long take. Some of them are funny, others poignant, some emotionally charged, some mysterious and others purely meditative. Theoretically, each works like a standalone short film, but together, they should create a comprehensive narrative.

We see a maid taking a moment to rest, before being hurried along to clean the room and move on to the next task, while the punchline of this episode is cleverly concealed and saved for the very end. Two suspicious individuals get into a battle of wits with two police officers after they enter their shabby motel room under the pretence of inspecting it. A rotating shot of a wedding photo shoot exposes some deeply buried secrets. A couple rehearses a dialogue they plan to have with a US immigration officer, as the woman wants to give birth to her son in the “promised land”. A young lady who works as an internet chat operator discusses the sense of not belonging anywhere with her clients. A middle-aged man narrates elements of his solitary life bogged down by routines while performing one of them – putting on a costume for work. Finally, we get to see the lights going on and off through the windows as sounds from the surroundings set in.

Some level of unevenness might be expected from a feature that is actually a series of shorts, and Yang Zhengfan tries hard to strike a balance between consistency and variation. Directing-wise, he has some interesting ideas, and he can also rely on the lenser who understands him best – himself. Given that he is more experienced with documentaries than with fiction films, the moments that channel an observational style work best here.

Stranger starts strong, employing quite a rigorous style, whereby proceedings are shot either from a fixed position or using geometrically regular movements, but these feel fresher thanks to some humour woven into the dialogue. After the fourth episode, which is the main and the most emotionally charged one, we get the sense that Stranger loses steam and some of its sense of purpose. Simply put, the last three stories do not have anything to do with the hotel rooms, rely too heavily on the lead actors’ interpretations of their solo characters and also sometimes slip into moments of technical imperfection, especially in the sound department. In the end, Stranger slightly outstays its welcome, while the director overplays his hand, as his good ideas are implemented in less-than-perfect and minimally varied fashion.

Stranger is a US-Chinese-Dutch-Norwegian-French co-production staged by Burn The Film in co-production with BALDR Film, Norsk Filmproduksjon and Les Films de l’Après-Midi. Burn The Film also holds the distribution and sales rights.

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