The first thing to notice about The Calming is the foliage. The film opens in an art gallery where an image of a forest is projected on a blank wall. A gallery employee adjusts nature for brightness and contrast. The next scene takes place in a tree-lined park where the main character (played by Xi Qi) lets a friend know she and her partner have broken up. In the subsequent scene, the foliage is fake and stuck forever between drywall and glass in a restaurant. Oh yes, writer and director Song Fang is going to have something to say about surroundings.
And it’s not all trees (though it is a lot of them). Fang places her protagonist against an incredibly varied array of backdrops: a city at night, a snow-covered country, bamboo forests, industrial refineries, mountains. She is almost always shot from behind, the camera at a safe enough distance to put her body and her environment in equal focus, forcing the audience to constantly evaluate the image to determine if her current place is the right one. The one that fits, that feels right. The one that will stick.
The Calming’s protagonist is constantly on the move, from city to city for her documentary exhibition or lectures, for brief visits to see friends and her parents. The walks she takes in nearby forests or parks are the only times she transports herself. She is always on a train or bus or in a cab. She is neither in the driver’s seat of her own life nor is she the author of her artist’s bio, because any talk of her life or work is spoken of by others. Her friend asks her about what happened to her relationship and she changes the subject to someone’s recent death. She’d rather talk about the absence of life than herself.
And so the audience is left watching her watch others, since she won’t talk about herself. Watching her wander paths to watch the branches and leaves blowing in the breeze. The presence of sound is so scarce. She has no internal monologue, and there is little soundtrack to speak of. To be contented to settle into this film of listless wonder appears to be the endgame.
But it’s not about wonder, is it? The closer she gets to home, the less honest she is about the end of her relationship. Why? When her belongings arrive at her new apartment, they barely take up one corner of one room. What does that say?
And then there’s the opera. The only time where we get to really see her face, and her eyes are closed. She is not only emoting for the first time in the film, she’s crying as she listens to Händel’s aria that says, “Convey me to some peaceful shore, where no tumultuous billows roar, where life, though joyless, still is calm, and sweet content is sorrow’s balm.”
The Calming is a story of a broken heart. In the vast silence and through the many pauses in action, Fang reminds us that all art is a series of choices. She succeeds in turning down the volume on the world, making us lean forward and listen close. To slow down, to pay attention, and to find virtue in that peace. We watched the protagonist wandering the woods and we wondered, “What is she looking at?” Instead, the movie was asking us, “What is she looking for?” The protagonist’s life may be joyless, for now, but it sure is calm.