By Yun-hua Chen.

With a rather comprehensive scope, the documentary’s subject matter spans from the mid of 20th century to recent past and ongoing present, and encompasses the full spectrum of nuclear weapons, nuclear plants, and the storage of high-level radioactive waste.”

The director of the documentary I’m So Sorry, Zhao Liang, has many documentaries under his belt: Behemoth (2015), a Golden Lion-nominated film about the environmental and social issues related to coalmining; Petition (2009), a film selected by Cannes about the desperation of oppressed commoners who devote their lives to petition the government; and Together (2010), a documentary about the living conditions of HIV positive people. He returned to Cannes this year with I’m So Sorry, the first time when he concatenates multiple regions in a feature-length film. By tracing the historical events of nuclear disasters around the world and visiting nuclear-affected locations at present, Zhao Liang’s question is geared towards the future of the mankind. During his globe-trotting for the documentary, he visited Semipalatinsk (Kazakhstan), the location of former Soviet Union’s test bases of nuclear weapons; Chernobyl (Ukraine); and Fukushima (Japan). He also recorded the Ende Gelände 2019, a series of civil protest to demand the “immediate fossil fuel phase-out” in Germany, weekly anti-nuclear protests in front of the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo, and the area near the underground permanent nuclear waste repository on the west coast of Finland in Onkalo (Finland). With a rather comprehensive scope, the documentary’s subject matter spans from the mid of 20th century to recent past and ongoing present, and encompasses the full spectrum of nuclear weapons, nuclear plants, and the storage of high-level radioactive waste.

While Zhao Liang documents these environmental issues from a panoramic perspective, his approach is humanistic. His camera lingers in the intimate space between a severely disabled child in a radiation-affected area and her mother who lovingly washes her and combs her hair. It also takes its time with an elderly woman who returned to her hometown after a nuclear disaster and lived in complete isolation, or an elderly group who had to move from shelter to shelter since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. We also see the haptic image of an elderly Japanese man inseminating flowers in his garden and telling us the prescience of his bees before the earthquake, or uniformed workers piling radiation-contaminated soil into a hill. By editing their snippets together, Zhao Liang connects these people who might seem to have nothing in common but whose life paths are tied together. To different extents, their lives have all been irrevocably affected by the policies of the ruling class and some out-of-control nuclear facilities which fail to be immaculate.

These individuals live in the aftermath of nuclear disasters, amid spaces of desertion and decay; an abandoned amusement park, unmanned monuments and tombs, train tracks without destination, trucks without drivers, farms without farmers, decayed cradles without babies, dusted apartments without residents. In I’m So Sorry, their images and voices are dissociated, as interviews of characters from Svetlana Alexievich’s work Voices from Chernobyl were juxtaposed to the living conditions of people in exclusion zones now. That’s how past and present are intermingled, and the fate of different individuals becomes one.  

Another thread of undiegetic voice is Zhao Liang’s voiceover reciting his prose poems like his stream of consciousness. The director’s subjective presence is also embodied in his signature surreal element. Images of real people’s suffering are interspersed with a Noh performer’s presence in various irradiated areas. The performer, wearing a mask with both expressions of joys and sorrows, walks in decomposed buildings, a deserted wilderness covered by weeds and woods, or next to piles of “cleansed” soil under a layer of plastic bag. Like a ghost that haunts where it used to be when it was alive, or a witness to disasters of several lifetimes, this character raises the film from its level of realness to that of surrealness and hyperrealness.

The soundscape is also real, surreal, and hyperreal at once; sound effects of radiation noises coexist with imagined shouts and roars of laughter in a kindergarten. The stunning cinematography of Zhao Liang and Sun Shaoguang is a curious amalgam of beauty and brutality, both breathtaking and bone-chilling, whereas the film’s collage of interconnected past, present and future is a deafening question about our insatiable demand for energy under the current capitalist and consumerist model. Whereas the English title of the film is a verbatim apology to the planet, its original Chinese title is a literary phrase written by Emperor Qianlong on a plaque of Dajue Temple, “Wu Qu Lai Chu”, which literally means “No whence, no whither” – like the human condition of forthcoming generations, with no place to go and no homeland to return to.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.

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