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Stranger (Ju Wai Ren)

People find catharsis and oppression within the walls of their hotel room, uuin this mysterious episodic drama from China - at the 58th edition of Karlovy Vary


A woman interacts enthusiastically with her mobile telephone on the bathtub. Maybe her online fans are watching. Or maybe she has no fans at all. Perhaps the device is just a venting outlet for her most trivial actions and diversions. A man drinks and smokes heavily, the room littered with empty beer cans and cigarette butts. Despite the mess, he refuses room service. The sacredness of his privacy must remain inviolable. A room cleaner changes the towels in the bathroom and then proceeds to change her own clothes, convinced that nobody is watching. The door must be firmly locked. What these people have in common is that they found safety and intimacy within the four walls of a hotel room, a place for bizarre performances and gestures of deliverance.

Not everyone is entirely on their own. Two men are questioned by the police, but they refuse to provide detailed answers. They insist on their right to remain silent, only to be told that such prerogative exists in the West but not in China. Their anger and frustration grows. There is even a small matrimonial celebration, in one of the movie’s shortest vignettes. Not all settings look like a hotel room, despite the synopsis insisting that such is the case. One way or another, these confined spaces look very different, ranging from chic to shabby. Each episode is captured in one single long shot. The camera remains almost entirely static, except for the occasional panning, and a couple of handheld movements. Long shots prevail, often from behind a piece of furniture. The outcome is a sense of imprisonment and alienation. These people are hostages of their own micro-catharses, and we are mere voyeurs. Uninvited guests. Intruders.

One man philosophises: people on both sides of the wall are prisoners. This means that the hotel guests and audience members alike are equally limited to a confined space. We do this out of free will, in our desperate search for little fragments of liberation. Yet this collage of snippets of life offers few possibilities of redemption. In fact, the movie is rather repetitive. The same man drops yet another pearl of knowledge: people the boulders, not Sisyphus. Strangers is indeed a Sisyphean experience: a painful and monotonous journey to nowhere. We roll up and down, and then all over again. This is intentional: the director aims to expose the banality of loneliness and isolation.

The observational gaze gives Strangers a documentary feel. Think of a Bing Wang movie such as Youth (2023) with a much shorter runtime and you’re halfway there. The actions are palpable, the tone is humanistic. This is a film about the silly things we say and do when we are on our own, or in a very small space in the company of few others. This loose episodic puzzle wraps with a Rear Window-like (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) shot capturing 12 windows, each one inhabited by a different lonely guest. Yet there is no murder. Instead, these hotel guests simply switch the lights off and disappear, one at a time. A beautiful and mysterious image. Just nothing to die for.

Stranger just premiered in the 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

By Victor Fraga - 03-07-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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