Watching over Beijing’s Xicheng district is an enormous white pagoda, a relic of the Kublai Khan rule, so majestic and otherworldly in looks and stature it might as well have been dropped on Earth from a far-flung planet. Legend has it the monument casts no shadow––not in its immediate vicinity, at least––though its silhouette is said to stretch as far as Tibet. No other corner of the megalopolis features as prominently as this one in Zhang Lu’s The Shadowless Tower, a film to which the 13th-century wonder lends its title as well as a metaphor for the kind of permanence its drifters fumble after. And no one among them is as drawn to it as Gu Wentong (Xin Baiqing).
A middle-aged food critic, Gu’s the divorced father to a six-year-old daughter who’s been essentially adopted by his sister and her husband. His literary ambitions have long subsided; once an aspiring poet, he now roams Beijing culinary haunts numbing his loneliness with heavy drinking and chain-smoking. But The Shadowless Tower opens with a revelation destined to yank him from his torpor. When Gu was only five, his father was accused of molesting a woman on a bus, a crime that led his mother to kick him out of the family. Unbeknownst to Gu, not only is the old man still alive, he’s also been paying secret visits through the years to check in on his children and pray at his wife’s grave. Gu’s brother-in-law hands him an address, but it’s the critic’s young and free-spirited photographer Ouyang (Huang Yao) who’ll ultimately needle Gu into making the reunion happen.
Gu’s reconciliation with his long-lost father unfolds parallel to his romance with Ouyang, and Zhang’s script keeps waltzing between the two storylines as Liu Xinzhu’s editing making them feel part of the same time-space continuum. Scenes do not begin or end in The Shadowless Tower so much as bleed and spill into each other, inviting you into a dreamscape where the boundary between fact and mirage is purposely blurry. A Chinese director of Korean descent, Zhang’s affection for fellow outsiders long predates his latest. His 2005 international breakthrough Grain in Ear followed a Korean single mother struggling to make ends meet selling kimchi in China; more recently, Fukuoka (2019) tracked a couple of Koreans traveling to the titular Japanese city to reconnect with an old acquaintance, with Yanagawa (2021) doubling as a reprise, dogging two Chinese brothers who head to the Japanese city the film’s named after in search for an old flame (a trip that was planned at a Japanese restaurant, a reminder of the sacramental role food plays in Zhang’s cinema, not as mere ornament but a narrative device).
People eat plenty and feel just as lost in The Shadowless Tower, though the alienation here takes a different shape. Ouyang is an orphan, which leads her to view Gu less as a lover than a father surrogate. As for Gu––clad in a corduroy jacket which he wears like a uniform and makes for a strident contrast with Ouyang’s livelier outfits––he drinks his way into the film as a kind of stranger on his own turf. Like the myriad people who brush past him, he’s itching to stay moored. That’s the paradox the tower ultimately encapsulates. Shot by Piao Songri in low angles that turn it into a looming spacecraft, the white pagoda doesn’t simply double as a synecdoche for a city uneasily poised between the old and the new. It’s the architectural embodiment of a man perched between stasis and restlessness.
Nearly everyone in The Shadowless Tower is either a Beijing resident or native. Yet they all seem to talk about the city as if they lived oceans and time zones away. Halfway through, a video call during a very drunken high school reunion with the one character who did leave the country––an old pal of Gu’s now headquartered in Paris––triggers a singalong of the anthem composed for the 2008 Olympics. Yes, the Beijing we’re beckoned into is a physical place, a maze of cafés and restaurants. But Zhang invites another reading: the metropolis as a state of mind––as befits his film, an unrequited, chronic longing.
That feeling reverberates everywhere in The Shadowless Tower. This is, at its core, a tale of people struggling to latch onto something (or someone), to plant their roots, to find meaning and purpose in the invisible lattice that keeps us bound to those we love and the places we share with them. There are moments when the nostalgia Zhang summons feels lacerating, but the film doesn’t wallow in sadness. It ends on a cathartic note. As Gu’s life weaves in and out of his exiled father’s and orphaned Ouyang’s, you get the feeling its disparate threads are all layers of the same story, that its characters are, for all their unspeakable loneliness, all tied to each other.
Songri favors static shots, especially during Gu’s reunions and harrowing confessionals. But the stillness is often offset by slow pans, the camera rotating left and then back to its original position. In the few seconds it takes for it to glide back and forth, a whole scene might rewind itself or fast-forward, opening up a liminal space where characters can finally reunite and confide in each other. Nowhere does The Shadowless Tower come closer to the sense of communion Zhang gestures at than it does here. It’s in moments like these that the film swells into a bridge between time and space, where Gu can find himself and others, and his meandering comes to a halt. It’s all an illusion, of course. But what a soothing fantasy to behold.
The Shadowless Tower premiered at Berlinale 2023.