A canvas of life in China that has proved displeasing to the authorities there.




Unlike most films, Zhu Shengze’s Present.Perfect. challenges the viewer to decide exactly what the aim was that the filmmaker had in mind. Although she is now living in Chicago, Zhu’s eyes are on the country of her birth and, indeed, this third feature by her contains no footage shot for the film - instead it is comprised of actual examples of live-streaming made by people in various parts of China. Zhu does provide context by opening her film with written statements emphasising how live-streaming became all the rage in China in 2016 but led to legal restrictions in the following year. The Cybersecurity Law passed then claimed to be for the protection of the nation and of netizens. For those like myself who do not keep up with modern technology the on-screen notes usefully confirm that streaming offers real-time content and instant interaction with those who stream being known as anchors and live comments in response being called bullets.


What can safely be said of Present.Perfect. is that it provides a view of Chinese life at street level. I am told that Zhu selected the images on screen from around 800 hours of recordings and her choices all fall on individuals in the lower ranks of society. Some appear only once but others are not only seen again but become major figures in the film. One such is a 23-year-old mother, once married and with a 3-year-old daughter, who works in a factory making underpants. Others are more out of the ordinary, especially a man with severe burns to his head and elsewhere too, a dwarf born with deformed hands and feet and a child-like male of independent spirit burdened by arrested development ahead of puberty who, contrary to his appearance, is now in his thirties.


Given the historical context, this could be primarily thought of as a record of the craze for live-streaming at its peak or, if you put the stress instead on the social side, it could be a view of people in need adrift in a society that does not seem to care. As a human study, the impression it gives is of a desperate call for attention on the part of these anchors while the view of society that comes across is one that underlines the fact that this age of modern communication is also an age of loneliness. Although some have seen this film as exploitative regardless of approval given by those seen here (and it does include a self-harmer and a girl in a wheelchair subjected to cruel comments), overall it is the ability of some of the worst-off individuals to survive and to sustain a sense of hope that is communicated more vividly than anything else (there is one very affecting moment late on when unexpectedly two of the individuals seen earlier interconnect).


However, what you regard as the chief focus is up to the individual viewer. That the film is divided into four sections for no obvious reason certainly does not clarify things. Likewise, the reason for starting off with shots largely depopulated is obscure and some of the people featured are more interesting than others. As against that, the decision to turn all the footage into black and white for consistency yields memorable images and, despite a running length of just over two hours, this is a film that brings back the main figures sufficiently often for one to become keen to learn more about them each time that this happens. Present.Perfect. is a collage without a commentary and it will not be to everybody’s taste, but I found it a haunting experience.


Original title: Wan mei xian zai shi.       




Dir Zhu Shengze, Pro Yang Wang and Yang Zhengfan, Screenplay Zhu Shengze, Ed Zhiu Shengze.


Burn the Film/Tender Madness Pictures-ICA Cinema.
124 mins. People's Republic of China/Hong Kong. 2019. Rel: 24 January 2020. No Cert.