VIFF regular Zhu Wen has never been more dazzling than in his new poetical/philosophical drama Thomas Mao. “Thomas” is a European artist, played by an art curator from Luxembourg. “Mao” is a Chinese farmer, played by famous artist Mao Yan. In the film’s first section, Thomas is trekking in some remote but scenic Chinese backwater and, lost, is taken in by Mao. Neither speak the other’s language, and comic miscommunication rules as Thomas arrogantly demands service, and Mao does his scruffy best to oblige.
Whereupon space aliens descend on Mao’s cabin. But not before a swordsman and a flying goddess do elegant battle on the grasslands. And only after this does the film begin to get seriously weird.
The film’s opening quotation of the ancient philosopher Zhuangzi’s most famous line, suggests what Zhu Wen might be up to here: “Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly. Suddenly he woke up, solid and unmistakably Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.”
Dreams of the other, the (artificial) borders between self and other, West and East, dreamland and “reality,” fiction and documentary. This audacious, playful, profound film takes on the weightiest subjects with the lightest of touches: be prepared to be amazed. —Shelley Kraicer