A lovelorn young woman travels the coast hoping to get a response from the sea in Wang Mingduan’s beguiling indie drama Black Tide Coast (在黑潮汹涌的海岸, zài hēicháo xiōngyǒng de hǎi’àn). A slice of slow cinema, the film finds its wandering heroine chasing the ghost of lost love while on an uncertain journey but eventually finding herself roped into a stage play short of an actress and befriending an equally lovelorn young woman on a similar yet stationery journey waiting for her love’s return.
As the film opens in the summer of 2015 in Shandong, Qin is on a peaceful solo holiday during which she is supposed to meet up with a friend only he never shows up, all that’s left of him is a pair of glasses on the beach. Four years later she fetches up on the island of Hainan once again taking in the tourist sites but this time hanging out in a bar where they play classic movies from Taiwanese landmarks A Brighter Summer Day and The Boys from Fengkuei to the back catalogue of Eric Rohmer. After a while she is scouted to fill in for an actress who apparently has appendicitis in a surreal avant-garde play about a woman trapped in a strange place with a Squirrel who’s lost her pinecone, and a bear who doesn’t want to hibernate and leave her shadow behind.
The tone is indeed Rohmeresque in its whimsy, Qin proceeding on her holiday in these very laid back places just generally hanging around in the sun. The Shandong trip is broken into several vignettes marked by title cards featuring the dates though Qin mainly does ordinary tourist things and later records her thoughts about the weather on her phone. She receives a phone call she doesn’t answer, but seems somehow lonely and a little lovelorn. Catching sight of happy couples in the streets seems to depress her, as does a romantic charm hanging by a shrine along with its pair which appears to be blank.
It may be the possibility of blankness that frightens her even as it motivates her journey onwards as she eventually reveals travelling the coasts of China on foot looking for a sign from the sea. Meanwhile, she strikes up a friendship with Chen, the woman running the cafe, whose friend also deserted her four years previously only she has decided to stay put and is busy hosting a retrospective trying to screen all of the films he left written down in an unfinished notebook. Each of them seem to be in some way looking for a missing person, wondering if its possible to save a man lost at sea in the same way you can save a sunken boat while meditating on journey’s end and how you know when it’s time to leave a place in search of somewhere new.
Qin herself describes her adventures on the island as like a dream in their absurdity, watching Classic French cinema in a beachside cafe and starring in a strange absurdist play. Wang’s trance-like transitions and oneiric mise-en-scène add to the dreamlike feel as does the poetic dialogue which leans towards the philosophical as the two women meditate on journeys, lost love, and incomplete quests while themselves searching to define their place in the world. In the end they have in a sense swapped places, Qin left behind or perhaps electing to pause her wandering while Chen decides to stop waiting handing the notebook to Qin as someone more familiar with its contents. Yet the closing coda may imply the two women have crossed paths before or that their fates are somehow linked while the closing poem seems to point towards their courage in continuing their respective journeys standing on the shore looking for a sign from the endless sea as if waiting for a letter from an absent friend. Dreamlike and ethereal, Wang’s delicate script offers no concrete narrative nor definitive message but perhaps suggests that the meaning lies in the journey itself and can only be discerned by those who are prepared to look.
Black Tide Coast streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.
Original trailer (no subtitles)