From the start of The Enigma of Arrival, we are guided through a maze of superimposed and dreamy scenes by the languorous voice of the narrator, San Pi (Liu Weibo). The prologue begins with a meeting of friends in the misty setting of a Japanese spa – the reason for this meeting is unclear but it leaves the viewer intrigued. It instigates the plot of this psychological drama while establishing a mood of mystery and melancholia. San Pi encapsulates the story in a few words: “Everyone filters down memory to his own benefit”. The ingenious production design by Xie Fei along with a brilliant use of colour/monochrome give Song Wen’s debut feature immediate “art film” appeal.
Next comes a flashback to the 1990s against a black and white backdrop: four friends are kicking a ball in the junkyard of a port town on the Yangtze. They met at the Wuhu School of Marine Engineering in Anhui Province, but now, with Fang Yuan (Dong Borui) as a leader, they play truant and look tough walking around this bleak town where unemployment runs high and tricksters abound. The sudden apparition of the sensual Li Dong Dong (Gu Xuan) and her friend Liu Xiaomei (Zhang Qiyan) while browsing in a music shop is like sunlight in their otherwise drab existence. They all meet up at a local disco and two of the boys, Xioalong (Li Xian) and Fang Yuan, compete for the attention of Dong Dong whilst the comparatively timid Da Si (Lin Xiaofan) tries awkwardly to romance Xiaomei. The loud music and the mixture of warm and cold colours on the dance floor are immediate reminders of Wang Kar-wai’s approach to evoking mood. And, as if this reference wasn’t enough, a poster of his famous film Days of Being Wild (1990) is pasted at the entrance of a down-market cinema; the boys are watching Chow Yun Fat in John Woo’s iconic A Better Tomorrow (1986) whilst waiting for the midnight porn specials.
The director then takes us into a series of images and dream like sequences offering the viewer some access to the puzzle. The blurred camera shots and the fog like scenes give the story ambivalence and opaqueness relating to the opening dialogue of San Pi: “Life is floating between fiction and reality like a prism which can create fiction and reality tinted by different colours”.
Under the bad influence of Wu Yi (Li Zonglei), the boys decide to steal petrol from a barrel of one of the ships anchored in the port. After selling their loot, a much more savvy gang of thugs take advantage of the inexperienced youth and this results in violence. To take revenge, the boys burn the ship down and this escalates the dramatic scenario. Dong Dong suddenly disappears and their lives will be changed forever. They all keep looking for her, especially Xiao Long whose existence becomes a continuous quest to find her. All this takes a toll on their friendship and they end up going their separate ways. It’s only towards the end, when they haven’t seen each other for years, that Fang Yuan arranges the reunion at the Japanese spa and we return to scenes at the beginning to establish some resolution.
The pacing of the film is compromised at this point: their meeting and the denouement that ensued would have been the perfect ending where the viewer finally ascertains that, “Everyone tells his preferred version of the same story”. But instead, we are given more unnecessary images seeking to explain the plot when there’s nothing left to explain.
Overall, the personality of each boy is interesting and comes through organically. The female characters are a bit like the “wild flowers” in Dong Dong’s song, projecting beauty and shallowness, which leaves the viewer unsure as to the purpose for some of their actions.
At 112 minutes, the length of Song Wen’s first feature is a problem that often occurs in Chinese films. Judicious editing is simply not something Chinese directors are good at – Feng Xiaogang’s Youth (2017) is a prime example. Despite this and the somewhat overdone violent scenes, the success of this film lies in the very well formatted Rashomon effect used by Song Wen. This is named after Akira Kurasawa’s iconic 1950 film in which he examines the depth and perplexity of human nature: the same event (a murder in this case) is described in different ways by four witnesses. Song has achieved this with The Enigma of Arrival, albeit in a more modest scale, by giving the viewer an interpretation of reality through a prism.