Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Fantastic Film Festival.
An Impossibly Small Object (2017), Dutch filmmaker David Verbeek’s second feature set in Taiwan and third feature set in the Far-Eastern Sinosphere, is two stories thinly interconnected: a grade school friendship between a girl and a boy just as it’s ending, and a Dutch photographer (Verbeek) torn between homesickness and wanderlust. The first tale is an atmospheric work of magical realism reminiscent of the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, albeit with more dynamic camerawork; the second tale is little more than subtitled mumblecore. But an enigmatic third act, though brief, manages to transmute unanswered questions into mysterious ambiguities.
The film opens on a Dutch photographer fascinated by a nighttime picture he took of a girl flying a glowing kite amidst a residential urban jungle. The girl, unbeknownst to him, is Xiao Han (mononymous Lucia), the daughter of poor street food vendors; her best friend is Hao Hao (Chen-Hung Chung), whose family is more affluent. Their friendship, though often affected by this class difference, is close, until one day Hao Hao’s family moves to the US. The breakout child actors do phenomenal work, with Lucia in particular stealing the show time and again, and the performances and situations are involving despite the fact that the script, written by Verbeek, often has lines and situations that don’t feel authentically Taiwanese. Something else that isn’t authentically Taiwanese is the use of a larger-than-life deity puppet (shenxiang or shenou) as an omnipresent observer, lurking in the many shadows of the film and moving apparently of its own accord. The magical realist atmosphere is achieved mainly through the deft deployment of this deity puppet, undergirded by a suggestive score and the many gradations of darkness captured by the long tracking shots of cinematographer Morgan Knibbe. Verbeek has said that he purposefully divorced the deity puppet from its cultural context, eschewing explanation to heighten the effect—and it works, so long as you don’t already know its original context. The deity puppet returns in the third act, and in a brief but humorous post-credits scene.
The second story is of the photographer, back home for a day, fending off questions about his life choices from his parents and ex-girlfriend (but current hook-up). These people have an undeniable draw for him, but going back East draws him stronger. The sequences here are more run-of-the-mill; the highlight is when we get to see the photograph from the introduction, in which Xiao Han flying her kite looks straight into the camera and strikes the same pose as that of the deity puppet. It is indeed a fascinating picture. The photographer says this was unprompted, but it’s obvious that Xiao Han is performing for his camera. (Equally obvious is the fact that her pose was carefully dictated by Verbeek wearing his director’s hat.)
In between the two acts, the photographer meets an old lady (Lisa Lu) on the plane ride home who the film strongly hints is somehow Xiao Han. They get into a discussion of light and darkness, and the film’s title is revealed to refer to a black hole. Unfortunately, this theme isn’t explored beyond the obvious parallel of an object of fascination drawing one in. This interlude does, however, pave the way for the brief third act, which finds the camera roaming a renovated old seaside building crawling with vines as the photographer spouts abstractions in voiceover (my favorite sub-genre). The camera finally arrives at the back of the old lady as she’s cooking, and the reverse shot reveals the point-of-view as belonging to the deity puppet. The entire act is shot in the same magical realist style that makes the first act such a success, and the ending, though answering exactly zero questions, re-balances the tone, giving the film a sense of closure.