Taiwan’s soft lockdown has been extended into July, so I’m back with another review of a MUBI offering: Longing for the Rain, the 2013 fiction debut of Hong Kong (RIP) documentarian Yang Lina (楊荔鈉), who also wrote and co-produced. Though shot on location in Beijing and Changchun, the explicit treatment of its subject matter of female desire clearly distinguishes it as a Hong Kong film.

Fang Lei (Zhao Siyuan 趙思源) is an upper middle class Beijing wife and mother who’s bored by the unerring routine of her daily life. Lo and behold, she starts dreaming of passionate sex with a man in vaguely ancient garb (Dej Pongpazroj). As Fang’s friend (Xue Hong 薛紅) exasperates, “Why can’t you get a regular lover like everyone else?”

These erotic scenes are explicit, but also carefully subjective. Using closeups and quick cutting (edited by Yang Hongyu 楊紅雨 and Matthieu Laclau under the supervision of Taiwanese veteran Liao Ching-Song 廖慶松), the scenes focus exclusively on Fang’s pleasure, evoking her passion and excitement.

Is it cheating if it’s supernatural, committing adultery with him already in her heart? Fang’s longing for these unworldly assignations makes her think so. Her husband (Fu Jia 傅迦) is a great guy, but years of marriage and a video game addiction have dissipated his desire. The film’s title seems to refer to the Chinese term 甘霖 “sweet rain,” rain after a dry spell, a metaphor for satisfaction after long deprivation. Otherwise, rain or even water have no significant symbolism in the film. The Chinese title, Chunmeng 春夢, means “wet dream.”

Desirous and guilty at the same time; we’ve all been there. Something ought to be done, I suppose. A Taoist priest (Liu Bing 劉兵) helps Fang ward off what he calls a malevolent spirit. A shaman (Wang Jie 王杰) advises her to help the spirit achieve reincarnation. Predictably, she agrees with the latter. Just as predictably, disaster strikes.

The film bears the hallmarks of Yang Lina’s documentary intuitions. The plot as outlined above could have been covered with just a short film. The rest of Longing’s 104 minutes is a sequential exploration of various social issues that impinge on Fang’s life. But the fiction and documentary aspects don’t hang together very well.

The first angle is the intersection of materialist ennui and desire that instigates the plot. The opening long scene follows Fang through a big box store, and then a traditional market, where she hears a TV newscaster berate the city for being so indifferent as to ignore a woman hit by two cars, one after another. After dispatching her daily responsibilities, Fang, alone at home, attempts to alleviate her boredom or even depression by masturbating.

We get the point – that materialism leads to insular indifference and spiritual death – but it could’ve been conveyed without such a long preamble that bores us, too.

Next is a subplot about Fang’s dementia-riddled mother-in-law (Xu Guiqin 徐桂琴) and her live-in nanny (Wang Jinye 王金葉). Granny dies, and speaks to Fang in her dreams, proffering information that turns out to be accurate. Fang visits her not once but twice before her death; it’s a hell of a detour just to establish her supernatural bona fides.

The supernatural itself is the film’s third documentary concern. At her wit’s end, Fang enters the Wanshou Buddhist Temple for religious treatment (shot on location at the actual temple). Her dormmates, fellow supplicants, have maladies of their own, including being possessed by various beings, and their spiritual seeking together builds communal spirit and, sometimes, religious ecstasy. Since Fang is only stricken in her sleep, the film makes her a fly on the wall, and yet we’re never clear on the other women’s ailments.

To make matters worse, the film was shot by cinematographer Wang Min (王敏) on a handheld Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which has been noted for a technical limitation that can create moiré patterns in its images. In practice, the distinction between the foreground and the constantly shifting or “stuttering” background of the handheld shots is very wonky. The image acts like it’s poorly pixelated, even though it’s not. You know how if you look through a screen door while you’re moving it’s fine, but as soon as you stop the screen jumps out at you? It’s kind of like that, and it kills whatever documentary or realist mood the film is going for.

Despite all this, the film manages to achieve one point of real insight. Taoism, shamanism, Buddhism – it may seem like Fang is grasping at straws, but it’s actually an authentic portrayal of Chinese religion. Western missionaries and academics like to say that China has three major religions: Confucianism (ancestral deity worship), Taoism, and Buddhism. In fact, Han Chinese culture has only one religion: whatever higher power fits the situation at hand. Roughly, deity worship is for daily affairs, Taoism for (all kinds of) health, and Buddhism for whatever needs more oomph.

In Fang’s case, Buddhism appears to do the trick. But the ambiguous ending, one of the most wide-open endings I’ve seen in a while, says different. If only Longing could’ve gotten to that ending sooner.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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