‘The Shadowless Tower’ Review: A Wry and Wistful Chinese Charmer

The eccentric design of the White Pagoda, a 13th-century Buddhist temple in the Xicheng district of Beijing, makes it hard to see its shadow. This has given rise to the local legend that its shade can actually be found some two thousand miles away in Tibet, the temple’s spiritual home. The landmark is a constant presence in Chinese director Zhang Lu’s tender, brimming “The Shadowless Tower,” which fixes its setting in the very heart of the Chinese capital, a city rarely portrayed as fondly as it is here. But the pagoda can also be seen as an evocatively imperfect metaphor for a lifestage: that tipping point in the middle of one’s time when, with the past and future weighing equally on either side, you can feel disoriented and suddenly directionless, as when the sun is directly overhead and you cast no shadow. 

The gently befuddled Gu Wentong (Xin Baiqing) is at just such a juncture. A moderately successful food and restaurant critic and a lifelong Beijing native, he is a doting but only occasional father to his happy, bright little daughter Smiley (Wang Yiwen). She lives in the daily care of his sister Wenhui (Li Qinqin) and her husband Li Jun (Wang Hongwei), though Gu frequently drops by, sometimes tipsily, late at night to check in on her. Gu, a writer whose talent for poetry apparently never quite equalled his love for it, is divorced and estranged from Smiley’s mother, and his own mother has recently died. When Gu was five years old, his dad was accused of molestation on a city bus, and his mom threw him out. Gu has had no contact with him since.

The two main strands of action — if a film paced at such a calm, pleasant stroll can be said to have as much — are Gu’s tentative romance with his 25-year-old photographer Ouyang (a spritely, engaging Huang Yao) and the even more hesitant renewal of some sort of a relationship with his father (Tian Zhuangzhuang). Unbeknownst to Gu, his dad has been making semi-regular 300-mile trips by bicycle to Beijing from his home in a seaside town, just to catch the odd glimpse of his son, daughter and granddaughter. It’s Gu’s affable brother-in-law Li Jun who slips him a note with his father’s address and phone number on it. But it’s the pretty, mercurial Ouyang who will nudge him toward an actual reunion. 

The warmth of Piao Songri’s photography is a constant, as is his facility for the offbeat framing of even the most everyday encounter, using doorways or reflections or a quickly shifting focus. And the soundtrack is equally witty, in between the sentimental songs about Beijing that Gu has a tendency to sing when drunk, composer Xiao He’s delicately used score has a signature flourish: a sci-fi-ish sting that accompanies most views of the White Pagoda, almost like it’s a UFO hovering in the background of Gu’s life. And if editor Liu Xinzhu’s rhythms seem a little formless at first, that’s deceptive: As “The Shadowless Tower” ambles onward, it reveals its arcs of change not in dramatic showdowns or sudden revelations, but in ellipses, in the occasional mysterious fold in chronology and, most rewardingly, in the casual, unforced repetition of certain motifs. 

These recurrences are like the shadows that others leave on us, the behaviors we’ve picked up from our parents, for example, or the gestures we’ve unconsciously absorbed and mimicked that have now become our own. Gu sees a woman massaging her earlobes on a bus as a relaxation technique and surreptitiously does the same. On a walk through a park, an older man suggests that Gu copy him and walk backwards, facing toward the place he’s leaving; Gu gives it a go. Sometimes, these echoes and imitations forge links that are even further beyond the realms of everyday logic: Ouyang tells Gu he was dancing a waltz in her dream and some time later Gu finds a ballroom-dancing DVD in his father’s tiny seaside apartment. The simple gift of a kite later takes on similar significance.

There’s so much incident and observation here that it’s only subtly we notice Zhang Lu’s overall design: Where a possible future relationship might be faltering before it’s even begun, a broken bond from the past is being cautiously mended. “The Shadowless Tower” is too wise and too true to the wryly unpredictable winds of fortune to assert that everything will alway balance out so neatly. But it does suggest that middle age has its comforts as well as its disappointments. There are glimmering consolations in becoming aware of the intricate tangle of invisible connections — to the past, to the people in our orbit, to the place we call home — that at any moment hold us suspended in the center of our lives. They cannot stop the freefall. But they can slow it down enough to be able to take in the view, and they can soften the landing.

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