Childlike Wonderment in a Strange World
In a delectable hybridity between documentary and fiction, Nele Wohlatz’s “El Futuro Perfecto” serves as a powerful exercise in exploring the hardships, upsets, and loneliness of 21st century immigrant life—all in a charmingly light manner. The film opens with a long, static shot, conjuring similarities with the existential sterility of Chantal Akerman’s opening sequence in “No Home Movie“ (2015).
It is a shot that beckons the viewer to imagine a dark narrative that will plunge deeper into the sinister underpinnings of starting anew, something akin to the immigrant’s plight in Iñárritu’s “Biutiful” (2010). But we see anything but that as the film progresses. Sure, the protagonist, Xiaobin, suffers the usual adversities that most immigrants do when transitioning from developing to developed worlds, but it is the manner in which these difficulties are tackled that make “El Futuro Perfecto” a winner.
In a dialogue that mirrors the Antoine Doinel interview sequence of the French New Wave masterpiece “The 400 Blows” (1959), we find Xiaobin answering questions in a similarly child-like manner. But while “The 400 Blows” uses the interview to signal the troubled upbringing and pathological lying of Doinel, “El Futuro Perfecto” does anything but, incorporating the sequence as a means of showcasing the awkwardness, the dreariness, the apprehension and anxiety of being interviewed by an authority figure. And while the subject is serious in tone, it is our protagonist’s delightfully innocent and absurd answers that makes the viewer not only begin to understand the inherently deadpan comic value to be found in language barrier communication, but also come to terms with the process in which one goes from being a native in one’s land to an immigrant in another.
The soundscape created by Wohlatz is one that harkens these comically expressionless notions of isolation. Dialogue is seldom used in Xiaobin’s day-to-day life, save for what seem to be high school language class-like interactions, ones that add to the pleasantly light aura of the film, a quality that works in favor of the powerful message of alienation felt by Xiaobin and the other immigrants she interacts with in her new life in Argentina. Her Spanish classes’ mock interactions, which are meant to improve her Spanish, hilariously mirror her real-life interactions with various people—a love interest, her boss, a waiter.
None seem real, and yet the bare bone use of vocabulary and elementary manipulation of syntax invokes ideas of innocence, childhood, determination, fortitude and willpower. It seems as though Xiaobin’s life in Argentina has taken a comical turn that resembles a foreign language exercise book more than the plight and ardor of everyday immigrant life. But she is undeterred. She will prevail in this strange land.
On top of the beautifully simplistic dialogue, the city sounds that envelope our young protagonist point to a steadfast individual, one who bravely ventures into the metro, desperate and determined to figure out the public transportation system on her own. It is in these moments of speechless silence that we understand the loneliness, isolation and challenges that face Xiaobin on a daily basis.
She stands dumbfounded as speakerphones scream train arrivals and blonde, European-blooded commuters hurriedly hustle past the black-haired East Asian girl. But she is not discouraged by her overwhelming environment. She does not do as most people would, and walk in the same hurried direction in a psychological test of conformity. No, instead our protagonist defiantly walks in the opposite direction of the crowd. She will figure it out on her own, just as she’s doing in Buenos Aires.
Beyond the expert use of diegetic sound to mirror the isolative psychological state of our protagonist, Wohlatz’ use of cinematography is one that is especially astute in pointing out the loneliness of her being in a foreign land. We even rarely see Xiaobin’s parents or family. The audience only see the faces of her fellow immigrants—people that Xiaobin identifies with in this bizarre country. Instead, we see the faces of the native individuals speaking to Xiaobin. In a “Tom and Jerry”-like fashion, we are restricted to seeing the local Spanish-speaking individuals’ backs, their hand gestures, or even just their off-screen voices.
They occupy the same sort of space as an adult would in a child’s mind—overbearing, authoritative, and yet caring, understanding, and patient. As Xiaobin is fulfilling an order of a hundred grams of ham for a customer, she fuddles around and mistakenly chooses the wrong meat. The customer seems less annoyed than he simply does not want a different meat. Again, Xiaobin blunders and gives him more than two times the weight he ordered. While most would have grown irate at this point, the faceless native customer does not act like a customer but rather like a supervisory parent or adult—he does not want to mindlessly scold. He seems to simply want to order to be correct.
It is in this childlike space that “El Futuro Perfecto” excels and seemingly perfectly occupies. The innocence (and thus virtue) of Xiaobin is one that works to explore the powerfully poignant idea of migration—a topic that is all too salient in today’s ever-meandering world populace. But where most films tackle the very somber (“Mediterranea“) or the very comical (“Moscow on the Hudson”) in their exploration of immigration, this film’s message is one that finds a pleasant middle ground between the two.
“El Futuro Perfecto/The Future Perfect” initially screened as part of the Locarno Film Festival, opening on August 10, 2016 before coming to the New Directors/New Films Festival.