The Extraordinary in the Ordinary

in 75th Cannes Film Festival

by Azadeh Jafari

Ripples of Life (Yong an Zhen Gu Shi Ji), directed by Wei Shujun from China, was one of the impressive films premiered in Quinzaine (Directors’ Fortnight) 2021. The film consists of three interconnected chapters based on different characters. The thread that connects these stories is the filmmaking process itself, as the film begins with a film crew who are temporarily staying in Yong’an, a small town in southern China, in order to shoot a low-budget arthouse film. 

This self-reflexive, multi-layered film interweaves life and cinema in its quest to capture what its title suggests, “the ripples of life”, its delicate rhythm and ineffable complexity. Ripples of Life is one of those rare films that tries to find and reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary and Wei Shujun achieves this through nuanced, multifaceted characters, a serene observing camera, captivating compositions and stylized imagery.   

The first two stories are centered on two women, one a young mother named Xiao Gu (Huang Miyi) who works at her in-law’s inn and is practically a nobody. The second is a beautiful star Chen Chen (Zishan Yang), who is adored and envied by the people around her. They live in two separate worlds, however what they have in common is their loneliness. During the film they try to play another role for a short period of time: the young mother joyfully accepts to be a stand-in for the famous actress and the actress somehow wants to be her younger self, an ordinary girl who once lived in the same village.

The young mother is imprisoned in her social/economic situation and deep down yearns to escape her mundane life. As the temporary substitute for the actress, she is experiencing a new way of life which unleashes her suppressed desires. The scene in which she puts on some make-up and silently dances in front of a mirror with her baby girl sleeping, is extremely moving, it is a celebration of a dream that is already lost.

In contrast, the actress who has led a life of fame and glamour in showbusiness misses her simple carefree existence in the small town. But homecoming has never been possible as the sweet nostalgic memories can never be recreated. Chen Chen is unable to communicate with the people she once knew, even with her childhood friend, a simple shy man who really likes her. Their nice evening together turns into a distressing sorrowful encounter as his wife humiliates him in front of Chen Chen. The characters’ suppressed emotions come to the surface in an astounding dinner scene in which their jealousy, impotence, and inability to communicate are conveyed through the actors’ subtle gestures and postures. The second episode titled “It Looks Beautiful” ends with the actress drawing the sketch of a tearful eye with her finger on a foggy bus window.

In the last chapter, the impossibility of communication and mutual understanding turns into a literal and often satirical argument between the director and the screenwriter about the screenplay: how can the truth and essence of life be captured on the screen? As we have seen in the film, there exists no single truth but diverse, sometimes opposing, perspectives.

Azadeh Jafari
Edited by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas