‘An Unfinished Film’ Review: This Pandemic Portrait of Moviemaking, Loss and Community Is Crushing

Cannes 2024: Lou Ye’s latest film is one of the few about the pandemic to get it right

"An Unfinished Film"
"An Unfinished Film"

Unless one is very lucky, when we all shuffle off this mortal coil, there will always be something left unfinished. Whether it is art we were hoping to make, experiences we never got to have or people we wanted to tell we loved one more time, death brings with it the reality we won’t get to do everything we wanted. We are united by how we all will leave something unfinished.

In “An Unfinished Film,” the latest from Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye, this feeling informs the process of making a movie and surviving a pandemic. The two are brought together when a 2020 production is disrupted by the initial outbreak, sending everyone into quarantine in a hotel where they are disconnected from their loved ones. It is one of the most thoughtful, truthful and tactful depictions of the pandemic ever put to screen, eschewing easy categorization as it fully captures the event from ground level. We feel how it forever and fundamentally altered the world, both because of those who were lost and those who were left behind, as the unflinching film looks at the impact this has had. It’s often agonizing, but these remain painful times. 

It begins with a group of characters turning on a computer that has been off for 10 years. On it is a lost film that was abandoned, which we see segments of as characters reflect on and marvel at seeing the time capsule playing out before them. The film is a queer love story starring actor Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) who has since had a successful career and started a family though is called back by his director (Mao Xiaorui) to ask if he will help complete it. What form this will take is a little unclear, but the presumption is that there will be some sort of new scenes when his character is much older. After some initial reluctance, he evidently agrees as we then see production getting underway in a hotel on the cusp of Chinese New Year in January 2020. 

Quickly, things go awry as reports start to come in about the outbreak in Wuhan. The crew then begins having conversations about whether they should continue before eventually deciding to call it off. However, before they can leave, everything goes into lockdown and they’re stuck here. Thus, we then see much of the film via videos filmed on smartphones as characters both document their experience and try to connect through various video calls. These are sometimes shot from within the room before increasingly just becoming the shots of the film themselves. This creates a formal blurring where the ones making the movie are the characters themselves. 

Following the initial more grim setup where we can feel the inevitable train bearing down on the characters even when they cannot, it shifts into being about the personal stories and experiences of those who lived through this perilous time. Some of them are characters, while others are real people whose actual footage is interwoven with the film itself. This is where the experience is at its strongest, shifting away from spectacle to become profoundly human. 

The result is a pandemic portrait that gets at the sense of disconnection and loss better than most any other has managed to do. With elements that feel more like a documentary and others a more delicate drama, it manages to blend the two into something that is greater than either on their own. It makes for sociological filmmaking that zooms in on those that most others would overlook. It’s as if Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” was less an ensemble and more of a tightly focused drama about just a handful of people facing a crisis together while all confined. 

Some of the most powerful scenes are just two people talking, like one built around trying to fall asleep while speaking with a loved one on the phone, wishing to be together though realizing you cannot. When we then hear cries ring out on the street, a reminder of just how brutal this period was and is, the fear starts to take up more and more space in the rooms alongside the characters. Thankfully, this isn’t a thriller as Lou is smartly interested in the human impact of the pandemic. Even as some of them can fade into the background, the prevailing emphasis on people with what loss and isolation can do to them makes it all feel compassionately humanistic. 

When we then shift away to focusing less on the characters and more about the broader collective, it transforms into a film about mourning. With the world filtered through our phones, this is no easy feat and is something that becomes part of the point. Without calling attention to itself, it becomes a meditation on the way technology mediates our emotions with the way this can connect us and isolate us. An extended video of someone walking down the street for the first time after lockdown to witness an acknowledgment of loss from the pandemic captures this precisely. It is devastating, with the person filming becoming overwhelmed with emotion, just as it is inevitably distancing. While there is also joy when we see the production team dancing together via their video calls in celebration of the new year, the fragmented screens also serve to refract the way we are all desperately striving to connect before the end. 

And yet, this is all that we often have. In that sense, every video taken of this time is itself an unfinished film. Lou has now brought them together to finish something from many sources. It isn’t always a pretty picture, but it is a truthful one, proving to be a loving tribute to those lost. May we all have the chance to be able to finish the films in our own lives as this one does. 

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