We Are Living Things

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

We Are Living Things
"The film begins in a landscape of urban decay and it’s a long time before we see a horizon."

One of two films this year about men who take sex workers on road trips in search of aliens, We Are Living Things could not be more different in tone from its counterpart, Unidentified Objects. Sticking very closely to a familiar cinematic path, it aims to distinguish itself by way of style rather than substance, with a series of strong set pieces marking its spiralling path towards a transformative final shot.

Xingchen Lyu plays Chuyao, a Chinese-born woman who has been trafficked to the US, where she works in a salon and decorates the arm of mob boss Tiger (Zao Wang). In an early scene we see him fit her with a tracking chip, or the sort sometimes implanted in pets, which he says will make it easier for him to watch over her. The scar on her neck is covered by a cute little tattoo. He flatters her constantly, making her feel special, but he’s starting to pimp her out and she has less and less control over her fate. How many women has he done this with before?

Enter Solomon (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), himself an undocumented immigrant, who encounters her in the course of his work and is fascinated. Clumsily trying to meet her, he begins to stalk her, to turn up again at her home and work, and she reacts as most women would, frightened, anxious to get rid of him, turning to Tiger for help. Two things complicate the familiar scenario. Solomon may be naïve in hoping to befriend her this way, but he doesn’t actually mean her any harm. And although she has no way of knowing this, she gradually comes to realise that he may represent a less dangerous situation than her current one.

The increasing number of people who believe in alien visitation has been attributed by some to a longing for salvation in a troubled world where gods no longer seem very convincing. Chuyao believes that she has been contacted by aliens before, and longs to go and find them. Is this a rational impulse, or simply a desperate urge to escape the life she knows? Solomon is also a believer of sorts. As the film unfolds, there is a sense that the veracity or otherwise of these beliefs is not what’s important. Rather, it is the act of faith in itself which gives each of them the power to resist what life has given them, to keep on hoping despite a prevailing climate of despair.

The film begins in a landscape of urban decay and it’s a long time before we see a horizon. Key altercations take place in small, crowded rooms or narrow corridors, the protagonists always closed in. The only space for dreams is in the sky. When the visuals eventually open out, we still spend a lot of time in close-up, focused on people as sources of support or as agents of unpredictability, possible sources of danger. Guerrero sticks closely to conventional hero mode, consciously showing us its weaknesses, yet strives to avoid violence even when it comes looking for him. Lyu delivers the brittleness of someone habituated to trauma, expecting little else from the world. Nothing comes easily to either of them.

Dark and gritty, informed by experiences of racism and exclusion, We Are Living Things pays tribute to the couragec of all those who keep looking for the light, who keep breathing.

Reviewed on: 10 Jul 2022
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Two immigrants to the US go in search of the truth about a shared UFO abduction.

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