Wang's Arrival

Wang's Arrival

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Hotshot Italian music video directors the Mannetti Bros take another crack at the big screen with an offbeat little sleeper that could catch audiences unawares. Having previously tackled comedy, crime and horror with varying degrees of success, the duo have once again jumped genre (their next film will be a giallo), this time delving into a very theatrical strain of sci-fi. Wang's Arrival is a deadpan socio-political chamber piece that was conceptualized as a special effects showcase but has blossomed into something more substantial; its ambition might outstretch its budget but the Mannettis skillfully steer their stripped-down story through a variety of tones, only coming undone with an ambiguity-scuppering ending that will split viewers down the middle.

With the promise of an irresistible financial reward, Chinese-language translator Gaia is whisked from her humdrum day-job by the Italian authorities to assist in a secretive 'interview'. Led blindfolded to an unknown location, she finds herself in a pitch-black room where an intensely accusatory cop is looking to grill a captive 'visitor'. As the questioning gets under way, Gaia manages to convince the detective to turn on the lights so that she may better interpret her subject's tone, but the situation grows more complicated with her awareness of the truth. With the three-way communication intensifying, Gaia finds her loyalties tested by the inhumane conduct of her employer and the helplessness of his prisoner.

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The Mannettis show a fine eye for character detail in their measured opening, keeping the audience intrigued along with the main protagonist as she's seduced into an affair that is obviously going to be beyond her everyday understanding. The tension is maintained as the titular Wang eloquently introduces himself from the darkness, speaking in a soothing manner that belies a keen intellect. With the revelation of his true nature, the film displays a healthy awareness of its own absurdity, never sensationalising or exploiting the situation it portrays.

Meanwhile, the directors intersperse their sparse narrative with flashbacks from the point of view of the tough African woman who discovered the being in her house, as well as from Wang himself. These asides puncture the escalating tension effectively, offering moments of sly humour through the former's aggravated testimonial and the latter's panicked reaction to his unexpectedly violent reception.

Unfortunately, the interrogation becomes tiresomely repetitive during the film's midsection, where the officer's insistent questions are repeatedly met with the same response, while the audience waits for Gaia to translate without exacerbating the simmering atmosphere further. The script just goes in circles for what seems like an eternity - the Mannettis are obviously trying to make a point about the cruelty of acknowledged police procedure, but viewers will be left wondering in how many languages Wang will have to say 'I come in peace' before the conversation moves on.

That it does move on to some non-explicit but still grueling torture techniques may be a breaking point for some audiences, but the fact these admittedly brief scenes hit home so hard goes to show that the Mannettis have managed to secure our involvement with Wang's plight. That his persecutor also goes about his business with such an air of banality only adds to the expertly-orchestrated discomfort. The pace does pick up as the action moves out of the holding room, with Gaia realizing she must do something to avert a potential tragedy. To their credit the Mannettis manage to build excitement throughout the climax without letting the film become too overblown, the audience left in the dark as to what might really be going on aside from the main protagonist's exploits. Their mastery of suspense is displayed through several lengthy stealth sequences, aided by a pulsing, paranoid score.

A trio of powerful and believable performances are at the heart of Wang's Arrival, fleshing out characters that the script refuses to paint into easy shades of black or white. Despite going a little too over the top at times, Ennio Fantastichini has a suitable authority and injects a little gravitas into the blustering policeman's part. However, the film really belongs to Francesca Cuttica and Li Wong, the former making Gaia a believably rounded and well-meaning heroine, while the latter's hugely empathetic voice performance keeps the viewer completely enthralled by Wang, his sober and subtly persuasive tone recalling the parasitic Elmer from Frank Hennenlotter's Brain Damage. The special effects the Mannettis are showcasing are definitely impressive, with Wang's design a masterclass in making the ugly adorable, but the directors always remember to keep the focus on the characters, and the film therefore remains engaging throughout.

Realistic observations are made about gender relations, the validity of human rights, and whether it's possible to ever truly trust anyone, or indeed your own instincts. The political subtext is never used to beat the audience over the head with worthy sentiment and soap-boxing, even if the discourse doesn't tend to run very deep. The final scenes may seem like a slap in the face for some (not least due to how poorly they are executed), but they make everything that's gone before both more unsettling and more sardonically funny, the Mannettis bravely refusing to wrap things up in cotton wool.

A Hollywood remake (natch) is already in the works, which could be interesting given how pertinent the film's themes are to America's recent conduct. The Mannetti Bros have even said they would love to see Idris Elba starring, so perhaps it could prove a worthy endeavour. It should also be noted that the title is likely to change, probably for the best given the chance it gives us Westerners to indulge our penchant for double entendre; in whatever form you hear about it though, this is a leftfield charmer you'd do well to catch.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2012
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A bored subtitler is unexpectedly asked to translate the interrogation of a Chinese-speaking visitor from another world, with dramatic consequences.
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Director: Marco Manetti, Antonio Manetti

Starring: Ennio Fantastichini, Francesca Cuttica, Li Yong, Juliet Essy Jospeph, Antonello Moroni

Year: 2011

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: Italy

Festivals:

Glasgow 2012

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