There’s little to recommend about Ruijun Li’s plodding Walking Past the Future. Electronics factory worker Yaoting’s (Yang Zishan) father is in need of back surgery. To ease the city stress on him, Yaoting helps her parents move out of Shenzhen and back to their home province of Gansu. Alone in the city, and having been sent on extended leave by her employer, Yaoting looks to pick up odd jobs, but they soon turn into medical trials when she meets young hustler Xinmin (Yin Fang).
The film is clearly intended to offer a look at the tough realities of the Chinese lower classes, but Li never achieves any sense of insightfulness. For a film that could have addressed the heartbreaking human costs of China’s unprecedented growth, Walking Past the Future is too melodramatic and pretentious to convince. Li stations his camera simply, leaving his long takes to sit there with minimal movement, as if a “slow cinema” aesthetic automatically elevates dreary material. His actors do little to bring the drama to life either. Neither Yang or Yin bring any kind of spark to the screen and they play out the romantic developments mechanically.
Li sticks large smartphones in the hands of his adolescent characters but, rather than making any interesting comments on phone culture, he simply states that it exists and moves on. Li admonishes young people’s symbiotic relationship with these handheld screens but then indulges in exactly that, as (deeply uncinematic) texting becomes a key part of the film’s progression for some unknown reason. The instant message-related developments are as cold and insincere as you might expect.
The inertia is heightened by the visual blandness, as plain interiors and uninspiring locations dominate the frame. There’s one stylish drone shot, but it seems so out of place it perplexes rather than impresses. There’s also minimal score, so there’s nothing to excite the eyes or the ears, and the silence leads to stagnancy in countless scenes. The young characters are also a challenge to relate to. Their problems don’t seem big – and they are of course (having a sick parent is devastating) – but it’s hard to feel anything for them. Nothing hits home and the dullness of Li’s characters makes the drama a real chore. The wooden dialogue doesn’t help either. Walking Past the Future runs over two hours. If you’re still with it by the embarrassing CGI smudged final scene, then more power to you, because I certainly wasn’t.