The Arrival of Wang

Andrew Osmond reviews a wangtastic sci-fi film

The Arrival of Wang

The main character in this plucky little SF drama belongs to a profession that anyone reading this blog should cheer. Gaia, a young woman living in Rome, is a translator of Asian media. Specifically she’s a Chinese speaker, who’s subtitling a film at home when the phone rings. She’s offered another, much more lucrative job, acting as interpreter in an interview so urgent she must come at once. Her contact insists on blindfolding her before driving her to the interview, which rings alarm bells, but luckily she’s as curious as we are.

Arriving to a drably anonymous building, Gaia is led downstairs to a darkened room to commence the interview with the mysterious and unseen Mr Wang (voiced by Li Yong). At first the atmosphere is cordial, but after a couple of questions, the Italian interviewer – the heavy-set, pugilistic Curti – becomes aggressive, making barely-veiled threats. It’s obvious this isn’t an interview but an interrogation, though the questions take bizarre turns – “Why the Chinese language?” demands Curti out of the blue. Gaia finally insists on seeing Wang for herself, reckoning the situation is so surreal that nothing more could surprise her. The lights go on, and Gaia realises how wrong she was…

(Warning – in a moment, we’ll give away one of the film’s surprises, though it’s not much of a surprise if you’ve seen the trailer or even the DVD box art, and we’ll try to spoil as little as possible. If you don’t want to know any more, then click away now!)

Okay, so Mr Wang is an alien, and rather obviously so. It quickly transpires that he speaks Chinese on the grounds that it’s the most-spoken lingo on the planet, though presumably he hadn’t prepped enough to realise it might not be the most widely distributed language. Wang’s message is “We come in peace,” but Curti isn’t buying that, insisting the visitor has a hidden purpose and Curti has ways of making him talk. As an innocent and ignorant witness, Gaia plays audience surrogate, her sympathies sliding more and more as the situation intensifies.

One phrase that comes to mind watching this film is “bottle show” – an episode of an ongoing TV serial where the budget is squeezed down to the bones, often by confining the actors and action to a single room (a prison cell will do nicely). A big percentage of Wang’s running time is set in the interrogation room, plus some equally drab corridors, with three core characters and a smattering of support players. Luckily the two humans – Francesca Cuttica as Gaia and Ennio Fantastichini as Curti – are compelling, their conflict crackling with a furious chemistry. The film also gives each character some moments alone, making them believable presences.

As for the translation device – a novel solution to the hoary SF problem of conversing with aliens – it means the average non-Chinese speaking Westerner is immediately distanced from Wang’s statements, hearing everything second-hand from Gaia, and adding a layer of enigma. Of course, it’d be fascinating to hear the response of a Chinese person for whom the Italian of the “viewpoint” characters is as opaque as Mandarin is to most of us. One might reflect the Chinese language wouldn’t be quite as opaque abroad if China develops, say, an animation industry with a devoted foreign fanbase picking up the subbed colloquialisms and merrily misusing them. There’s also an unexpected reference to anime in the dialogue, where Gaia is trying to translate Wang’s techno-speak and apologises to Curti for using phrases (like “Cosmic communicator”) that sound like they come from “some Japanese cartoon.”

Either Wang turns out to be good or Wang turns out to be bad (for humans, at least), though there are riskier options, such as not answering the question at all. Which way the film-makers choose can invite blowback from the audience. For many critics and fans, this kind of SF drama isn’t just speculative storytelling but a real-world statement, whether about McCarthyism in the 1950s or asylum seekers today. Fans of Doctor Who may recall a heated spat over the Dickens episode, “The Unquiet Dead” – if not, it’s on Wikipedia. Personally I’d suggest that Wang’s only implicit statement is there’s no ordained “right” answer to the film’s dilemma – if there was, the film wouldn’t have been worth making.

In the event, The Arrival of Wang becomes less interesting in the third act, which leaves the interrogation room for dark and sinister corridors. The ending is a squib, letting the directors show off their modest effects budget, but stopping the characters and story rather than concluding them, without any great shock or surprise to compensate. Nonetheless, Wang is an enjoyable little piece, well worth its 80-minute watching time, though it begs one great question. In a film where translation is central to the plot, didn’t the directors (brothers Antonio and Marco Manetti) think to check what a word like “Wang” might mean in some foreign territories?

The Arrival of Wang is released on VoD on 27th August, and DVD on 8th October.

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