Clocking in at barely over an hour, Nele Wholatz’s debut feature film El Futuro Perfecto is that increasingly rare export from the Locarno Film Festival: an introspective art film both intellectually astute and emotionally resonate. While a cursory viewing might give the impression of a stilted primitivism of style, the film is meticulously crafted, every shot and edit expertly calibrated to a fine sheen. Unlike so much of the art film pabulum clogging the veins of the festival circuit, it addresses sweeping themes engrossing much of the human experience not by engaging them directly through ponderous metaphors or tedious philosophizing but by focusing on a single character and making us genuinely care for them and their struggles. By the end of the run-time, I had come to know and admire its lead in a way few films have in the past year.
That character is Xiaobin (Xiaobin Zhang), a young Chinese immigrant to Buenos Aires. Upon arrival, she bounces around between jobs, humiliating herself with her lack of Spanish. Not that her parents care—her working-class parents have both comfortably cloistered themselves within the Chinese immigrant community, caring little for Argentine society and even less for learning Spanish. They see Xiaobin as a burden to be married off to a fellow immigrant or as a part-time employee they can exploit until she saves up enough money to move back to China. But the shy and reserved Xiaobin wants more. Secretly saving a portion of her wages, she enrolls in a Spanish language class. Wholatz shoots these early classes almost exclusively in close-up, framing the students’ head and shoulders in the center of the frame as they stumble their way through elementary grammar and vocabulary. The students never share a frame together, and we never see the teacher who drills them. (Come to think of it, I don’t think we see the teacher’s face at any point during the film). This may seem bland and dry–and it is–but through these techniques Wholatz emphasizes the importance of the physical act of speaking in the lives of cultural and linguistic outsiders. Without Spanish, the immigrants are isolated in their own personal lives. By learning it, they become part of society, something Wholatz underscores brilliantly by slowly transitioning the tedious classroom close-ups into two-shots, then three-shots, then group shots as Xiaobin’s proficiency skyrockets.
But something unexpected happens as Xiaobin starts to master Spanish. She starts going out with an Indian immigrant named Vijay (Saroj Kumar Malik) who, while on their second or third date, unexpectedly declares his love for her and proposes marriage. Far from freeing Xiaobin to live her own life, learning Spanish has potentially trapped her into a committed relationship forbidden by her traditional parents, one that becomes suddenly much more real when Vijay announces that he must return to India in a week. Will she come with him?
The last third of the film is largely dominated by a classroom exercise wherein Xiaobin practices speaking in the future perfect tense—the verb form used to describe things that are planned or expected to happen in the future—with her unseen professor. As she speculates on possible futures, we see her acting them out. Some are triumphant—she marries Vijay and moves to India. Some are tragic—her parents discover her relationship with Vijay and murder him. Some are a mix of the two—she marries another Chinese immigrant and helps run his convenience store. As these fantasies unspool themselves, we start getting a portrait of a new Xiaobin, one determined to live her own life on her own terms. The film ends with no clear sign as to which direction her life will go, but leaves us with the certainty that it will be HER future, not her parents’ future, and certainly not Vijay’s future. It’s powerful and quietly uplifting in a way I haven’t seen a prominent European art movie be in quite some time.