Guidance (China, 2021)

Can love exist without honesty? Can it exist without deception? “Above all, to thine own self be true” says Polonius to Laertes, but even he wouldn’t object to the occasional lie when the king is in trouble. Neysan Sobhani’s debut feature, Guidance, puts the resolve of a young couple to test under the crumbling pressure of absolute honesty and absolute deception. Using the tools of science fiction, Sobhani’s film pokes at the human condition in an increasingly evolving and interconnected world.

Ten years after the “Great war” that nearly wiped out humanity, tech entrepreneur Su Jie (Francesco Chen) wants to eliminate deception entirely from people’s interactions. He invents, “Guidance,” a revolutionary App and AI that can immediately detect and share a person’s biological status, preventing lies and deceit from guiding people’s actions. It’s all voluntary, of course, but Su Jie hopes that the world will happily embrace his solution for lasting peace. He shares the first two trials with his employee, Han Miao (Jia Sun), and her boyfriend, Mai Zi Xuan (Harry Song). The couple is both excited and afraid about this new technology, and in their experiment, they ponder about the real benefits of honesty. Can their relationship survive each other’s secrets in this brave new world?

Guidance is best characterized as an ambitious philosophical science fiction film that attempts to explore the nature of human relationships and human communication. In typical SF fashion, Su Jie is the modern “Silicon Valley” version of the mad scientist, pawning an invention that is supposed to make the world a better place even though his true intentions may not be as pure as he wants everyone to believe. Though it is unclear to what extent Su Jie truly believes in his cause (it is quite childish), in the context of the film, his motivations are primarily guided by his involvement in the love triangle between him, Han Miao, and Mai Zi Xuan. Therein lies the testing ground where the ideas of the film are explored. Much of the film’s dialogue consists of conversations about honesty, deception, the war, and most importantly, Han Miao’s and Mai Zi’s future as a couple, which Su Jie would very much like to disrupt. Far from being dry, these debates are just as riveting as the relationship drama that unfolds on the screen. The film’s clever editing and cinematography also go a long way in carving out an underlying emotional depth that connects these complex ideas with the dramatic tension between characters.

Of course, one must address the elephant in the room. Albeit a very focused romantic drama, Guidance is also a film about mass surveillance originating from a country that is often accused of being a surveillance state. The new technology that Su Jie invents promises to completely eradicate all secrets and lies, all in the service of a “better world.” This does indeed have some scary associations with the real world which the film only tangentially addresses, perhaps for the best. “Even little white lies hinder personal and societal growth” says Hai Mi ominously in a heated debate with her boyfriend, in demand for absolute honesty. In the end, they both reject this new technology, possibly signalling the film’s political position in the real world.

Despite its philosophical ambitions, the film’s budget limitations are painfully apparent. It takes place primarily in single location (the apartment), relying on the dialogue to keep the audience engaged. Any significant depiction of the so called “Great War” is also lacking. Except for a brief shot of a demolished building that could easily be an unfinished construction zone, there’s very little in the film to suggest that there even was a war. Of course, this is understandable for a low budget film, though not entirely impossible in the era of CGI, which the film already utilizes. The trauma of the war plays a pivotal role in the characters’ motivations, so a better depiction of the consequences of war would have gone a long way in making the audience relate to the characters.

Clever, inspiring, and thought-provoking, Guidance is the kind of indie science fiction films that all indie science fiction films should aspire to emulate. Though somewhat rough around the edges, Guidance does what science fiction can do best, ask the difficult questions without providing clear answers.