Yawning and Dreaming in Spanish: Close-Up on Nele Wohlatz's "The Future Perfect"

Following a Chinese teenager recently arrived in Buenos Aires, "The Future Perfect" speaks to the alienation of a new environment.
Carolina Benalcázar

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Nele Wohlatz's The Future Perfect (2016), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from September 29 - October 29, 2017 as a Special Discovery.

The Future Perfect

Aquí el incierto ayer y el hoy distinto
Me han deparado los comunes casos
De toda suerte humana; aquí mis pasos
Tejen su incalculable laberinto.

— Jorge Luis Borges, "Buenos Aires", El otro, el mismo (1964)

Nele Wohlatz’s The Future Perfect opens with a wide shot of the Río de La Plata. In a far away, indistinguishable point, a ship sails. Later on in the film, we see a clear blue sky with a plane crossing it, leaving its ephemeral vapoury mark. The river and the sky appear as places to which we are all foreign but through which most of us, often inevitably, transit. Xiaobin (Xiaobin Zhang) is one of them, a Chinese teenager who has recently arrived to Buenos Aires to meet her family after years of being estranged from them. Her transit is most likely a necessity, like for so many of those who frequent the roundabouts of the rivers, the ocean, and the sky, more than their own homes. Although Wohlatz spends very little time observing them, she shows great interest in their metaphoric prowess. And in its ability to differentiate from them, The Future Perfect is above all a film set on earth, affectionately and empathically curious about the imperfections, mistakes and determinations of the lives that it houses.

Xiaobin’s arrival to Buenos Aires is revealed through the questions her Spanish teacher asks her. What was it like to see your parents after a while? What was it like to meet your siblings for the first time? What is it like to see things for the first time? What are the important things? She pauses and stutters. So would I. It is not only the language mismatch of the scene that renders the potential reply difficult, but the existential weight of the questions. Wohlatz opens her film embracing linguistic limitations and identity interrogations as motors for its story, which instead of being mirrored in mise en scène decisions, are put in constant dialogue with them. The wide array of sensations that alienation exudes is translated into both frames, making Xiaobin’s experience lead whatever path they may take. Confusion, anxiety, decisiveness, empowerment. The latter is significantly present in the film’s big picture, as the feminine territory in which it is rooted is deeply fertile.

Buenos Aires is the film’s pale blue, airy and calmly textured clay where Xiaobin carves her own road through language and walking. As she learns Spanish, she also learns to speak the city’s language; at times refusing to do so—as shown in an early scene at the meat shop or during her first argument with love interest Vijay (Saroj Kumar Malik)—and at times challenging herself simply to order a glass of orange juice. In deciding to make a film through a foreign perspective, Wohlatz dwells on both alienation and universality, recognizing that a cosmopolitan city such as this one can be both restrictive and embracing. Buenos Aires is not seen as a postcard-like city, nor as one in economic default. These two, however, are important contexts of the film’s creative process. Ultimately, Buenos Aires is seen in small gestures. Some that subtly anchor globalization’s superficial but unifying commodities, as when Xiaobin eats hotdogs and ham and cheese sandwiches, goes to the movies, and exchanges her Facebook profile with Vijay. And some, more subtle than those, that anchor Xiaobin’s optimistic yet unromantic will to speak the city’s language.

Wohlatz is meticulous and minimalistic in drawing out each setting that composes the film. One of them is Xiaobin’s parents’ place. The building where they live, which has a big sign on the front that reads “Lavadero Tintorería” (Laundry Drycleaner), is almost always seen from the outside. The camera often stands still, sometimes tilting slowly towards the top floor, to see Xiaobin appear through the window. This speaks not only of the alienation one experiences in a new environment, but also of the alienation in a familiar one. In opposition to this setting’s stillness, Wohlatz elaborates a joyous progression in the classroom where the Spanish lessons takes place. Here, the camera is aligned with the students’ gaze and often looks directly at them. The classroom is seen from the inside as a space of mutual trust and horizontality, in which the playful and performative aspects of learning a new language exude the poetic potential of reinvention.

As Xiaobin and her fellow students learn by acting and mimicking, they create a fiction that is both individual and collective. They become nurses, doctors, waiters. Their origins change from Chinese to Chilean and Spanish. And within that fiction, they start to find themselves. Xiaobin does it with her new Spanish name, as Wohlatz mentions in the interview conducted by Gustavo Beck for the Notebook last August, in a manner akin to changing into the dress that best suits her. Xiaobin becomes Beatriz, and also Sabrina, and something changes when she switches from one to the other, even if that progression may seem invisible. It also may seem invisible when the film goes from a treatment closer to documentary to one closer to fiction, but the fact that the director makes the playfulness of it all evident reveals a cinema that gives its language the freedom to reinvent itself on the fly.

In a scene that takes place in the Costanera, by the Río de La Plata, Xiaobin and her fellow students encounter Nahuel (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), an Argentinian actor, who in turn speaks in Chinese. Their mutual curiosity might also mirror Xiaobin and Wohlatz’s mutual curiosity that gave the film its initial strokes. Following the film’s inquisitive nature, it is now the students who ask the questions. How do you cry when acting? He explains, they listen attentively. I do too. There is no language mismatch here. He starts off by describing practices of Method acting. By going back to a very sad or very happy memory, one can start reconstructing the emotion to tears. Nahuel then describes other practices that conceptually seem foreign to the act of crying. Yawning is one. So the students yawn and cry. This is a moment of tender calmness that brims with a profound sense of community. Crying can come from method and intuition. It can come from a bodily reflex. And so can cinema. Wohlatz and Xiaobin wittily and whimsically meander around both ways and draw imaginary lines between and around them. And the film flows like the running water in the Río de La Plata, like experiencing language while dreaming.

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