Anjana Janardhan writes on Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s Jet Lag (2022) which screens at this year’s festival.
In Spring 2018, Chinese filmmaker Zheng Lu Xinyuan visited Myanmar with her family to attend a relative’s wedding. Between the celebrations and sightseeing trips around the city, her grandmother learned about her father who emigrated to the country from China in the 1940s leaving his wife and children behind. In Zheng Lu’s second feature the mystery of a missing patriarch triggers an investigation into the murkiness of family mythologies, intergenerational trauma and loss. Sidestepping a formal narrative, the filmmaker pieces together footage from her visit to Myanmar, a lockdown spent with her girlfriend in Austria two years later and intimate scenes with loved ones in China as they return to normal life. The result is a mesmerising essay film in which timelines and geographical boundaries are blurred to the point of near abstraction.
Footage shot on an iPhone, DV camera and sports camera is interwoven with archival material, still images, and personal correspondence all presented through a monochromatic lens. Scenes are rendered in inky blacks and luminous whites, their tonal disparities flattened to form a cohesive and emotive whole. The resulting scenes sparkle with a sense of immediacy, recalling the stark contrast and graininess of a black and white photocopy. White hazmat suits, a dog’s fur, a sink with dirty dishes. Zheng Lu captures the poignant details of daily life with elegant affection. The camera lingers upon surfaces – from tangled cotton sheets and pale flesh in soapy water to rain droplets on windows and cracked mobile phone screens. Water is a recurring motif and we are submerged with a stream of memories and impressionistic moments, carried across time on an undulating wave. Bodies are constantly in motion as views from apartment windows give way to hazy landscapes captured from moving trains, planes and cars.
Pixelated mobile phone images rub up against archival footage, smudging the line between the past and present. In a striking scene halfway through the film, an inverted tracking shot down a suburban street echoes in an elegant gesture the distortion of memory and the upside down quality of early pandemic life. With its dream-like pacing and varied source material, the film is at once nostalgic and contemporaneous, drifting between video calls, virtual walks in Google Maps and CCTV footage to precious family photos and handwritten notes.
Words, like memories, can be slippery things – illuminating, comforting or unnervingly ambiguous. An English study group becomes a safe space as participants find freedom in the direct and unadorned language required when speaking in a foreign tongue. A whispered conversation between lovers uncovers painful memories of abuse and craft knives hidden under pillows. As the military seize power in Myanmar in February 2021, activists take to the streets brandishing placards calling for democracy.
To experience jetlag is to temporarily encounter the discombobulating sensation of having one foot in the present while the other trails behind. In Zheng Lu’s evocative film exploring a family’s tangled story, the act of remembrance can trigger past trauma, catharsis or signal a profound expression of love. A man’s decision to abandon his young family sets into motion a wave that ripples out across three generations. Decades later, the five-year-old girl awaiting her father’s return is now an elderly woman whose sorrow remains frozen in time.
Anjana Janardhan is a designer and writer based in London.