Beautifully Shot "Release" a Bit of a Headscratcher

"RELEASE" (2017)
Genre: Drama
Length - 20:30
Company: University of Southern California

Qing Ping (Josephine Blankstein) is told by her government officer ex (Zhan Wang) that he's moving to America.  With that comes the kicker: he wants to take their son, Little Sishi (Marvin Wang) to give him a better life than what she can give him at home in China.


Accomplished Chinese writer Henry Liu takes on directing and editing duties for this short in addition to scripting it.  I can see where he was going with this short: a quiet, introspective character piece in which a woman makes a life changing choice for both herself and especially her son. 

Liu teams up with cinematographer Mitchell Sturm, and the results are absolutely gorgeous, with several exterior locations that look like they were plucked straight out of heaven.  This is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I have ever seen, in a short or a Hollywood feature film.  Simply incredible.

The thing about beauty is that it's nice to see even for its own sake, but there has to be some kind of substance to hold our attention after about five seconds, and any meaning in each individual scene is completely lost in the absurdly long shots Liu cuts together.  It's not even edited together, because most are long one takes that never go anywhere.  Literally: Qing Ping stares at a rock.  Qing Ping makes her son dinner, and feeds it to him -- and we see and hear almost every bite.  Qing Ping stares at a tree.

If Liu wanted an artistic take on his script, he should have settled for one long take, once -- doing it again and again made this short interminably long at 20 minutes.  It could easily have been cut to 8 minutes without any noticeable difference in theme or delivery.


The other thing that hampered me from enjoying this short was the script's lack of focus.  The very first scene shows Qing Ping and her ex discussing Little Sishi -- well, actually her ex talks, and she listens, as she does for the entire film.  She has no lines.  Now it is true that showing is better than battering the audience's head with on-the-nose dialogue, but she has to actually do something if we're to understand what she's thinking.

As a result, they have that conversation, a couple unrelated domestic things happen, and Qing Ping walks or stares at beautiful nature.  The conclusion is robbed of any emotional impact whatsoever because there was no weight to any of the preceding events.  I'm as big a fan of interpreting the events of a film for yourself as anyone else -- arguably more, if you've read my other reviews -- but unfortunately in this case I couldn't make any sense of it other than as random events.

It makes a short with a great deal of promise and incredible visuals fall far short.  


Writing: 1 / 5.  Qing Ping has no dialogue or development, the apparent plot of the film is jettisoned after the first scene and the introspective scenes add no depth.  We never learn anything about the ex, there's no frame of reference regarding the fish "subplot", if you want to call it that.  Film is a visual medium as I always say, but there has to be something to back it up, and there is literally nothing here.
Directing: 3 / 5.  Liu has some incredible visuals, but there's not much going on in each scene aside from a very slow pull-in or pull-out with the camera, or as in one case a simple static angle while Qing Ping walks down some stairs and across a field.  As the director, you don't have to reinvent the wheel but some variation would have spiced things up a bit.
Editing: 1 / 5.  Liu's editing just lets the camera roll . . . and roll . . . and roll.  The best word I can use to describe the pacing would be crawling.  
Acting: 3.5 / 5.  Another bright spot: the acting is pretty good here.  Blankstein and Wang are good in their roles, even though Blankstein has no dialogue.  She's got an expressive face and it works for Liu here.  The younger Wang does an admirable job considering what he's given to do.
Sound/Music: 5 / 5.  Brilliant sound design on this film, especially where the karaoke is concerned: so crisp, so lush.  Min He also deserves special praise for creating a very emotional score which is unfortunately not supported by the imagery on the screen.  

Overall Score: 2.7 / 5.

This short is screening at festivals now!

Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

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