All or Nothing

Jiajun ‘Oscar’ Zhang’s debut film, All, or Nothing at All, is composed of two parts, each around an hour long, featuring the same cast and designed to be shown in any order. Were it up to Zhang, projectionists would flip a coin. The film is set in and around a huge shopping mall in Shanghai called Global Harbour: 270,000 square metres of retail space sprawled across six floors, above which tower a pair of residential skyscrapers whose neon light-show facades erupt across a never-quite-night sky. When Zhang moved back to his hometown after graduating from the London Film School in 2017 and a stint in the US, the mall had ‘suddenly appeared’ (it opened in 2014). He began to conduct ‘research’: capturing the daily lives of shoppers and workers within its gleaming faux-marble halls (like a ‘magnificent Roman bath’, Zhang has said). The resulting fiction incorporates some of this footage, but each half focuses on a triangle of characters with the same names, engaged in transient, ambiguous and ultimately disappointed infatuations. 

‘Nothing at All’ – the first half of the film as I saw it at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York – follows a teenage amateur filmmaker named Lan Tian as he documents the goings-on of the mall on his phone. He approaches Yoyo (Chen Xiaoyi), a shy, withdrawn girl who works at a skincare kiosk, hoping to interview her, but she brushes him off and summons her manager, Perry (Liang Cuishan). Undeterred, Lan Tian returns under the guise of wanting a free sample. Yoyo talks up the benefits of the product in rote monotone while rubbing cream onto the back of his hand. The moment of ersatz intimacy between strangers is charged with real longing – for romance or recognition, if not necessarily for each other.

It is unclear whether Lan Tian (alias ‘Kafka’ on the social-media app WeChat) identifies with Yoyo’s loneliness, or whether she is merely the first person he comes across who doesn’t tell him to get lost – or whether, perhaps, she fulfils his idea of a romantic object. He films constantly, which at times seems invasive, even creepy, at others touching, betraying a kind of guileless wonder. During their equivocal friendship, he captures hours of mundane interactions, his gaze imbuing them with an almost sacred beauty. For her part, Yoyo appears to warm to Lan Tian’s company, if only out of ennui. When a barista at one of the mall’s cafés asks them whether they are an item, Lan Tian offers a tepid ‘Maybe?’ and Yoyo simply wrinkles her nose. Her thoughts seem elsewhere. When Yoyo risks breaking protocol by having him back for another sample treatment, her manager Perry catches on and lectures Yoyo on professionalism. Yet this gives way to another intimacy: soon Perry and Yoyo are sharing meals and making a game of trading uniforms, the once stern Perry pretending to wait on her new ‘boss’. In the glow of this newfound friendship, Lan Tian is all but forgotten.

The good times, such as they are, don’t last. Scandal erupts over a social-media post appearing to show Perry hooking up after hours at the kiosk with a married man (a sackable offence). Yoyo suspects Lan Tian. He insists he is innocent – his footage purely for his own enjoyment – but their tentative bond is ruptured, though Lan Tian continues to spy on Yoyo from afar, zooming in with his phone’s camera to the point of pixelated illegibility. What does he know of Yoyo’s experience, let alone her feelings?

‘All’ recasts Yoyo as the voyeur and aspiring creative (she wants to study architecture). No longer passive and reserved, here she is stylish and self-possessed. With her pointed sunglasses and effortless cool, Yoyo resembles a character from another film by a Shanghai-born director with a bipartite structure and concerned with youthful alienation – the anonymous woman with the blonde wig in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994). We meet Yoyo also poised between sweet and creepy: peering from behind a column at her high school ex, a transformed Lan Tian (played this time by the taller, older actor An Yu), who is working the front desk at a children’s dance studio. Nodding along to the music, his absorbed, earnest demeanour is endearing but hardly dazzling. What private meanings does Yoyo’s gaze bestow on this unlikely heartthrob? Lan Tian initially rebuffs Yoyo, then relents. Perry reappears as a third wheel, this time as the mother of a pupil at Lan Tian’s studio. He babysits for Perry, but there is a suggestion of a romance between them. Yoyo angrily disparages her as ‘that auntie’; Lan Tian’s puppyish infatuation has been replaced with fierce jealousy.

Although each half follows the transient dramas among its characters, the real protagonist of All, or Nothing at All is the mall itself. In Zhang’s vision Global Harbour is a disorienting space: at once overwhelming and somehow cramped – the effect heightened by the boxy aspect ratio and by camerawork which is alternately still, as though basking in the shopping centre’s numbing artifice, and anxiously following at the heels of characters, like a child afraid to lose their parent in a crowd. The sound is overwhelming too: a muzak version of Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ playing from the loudspeakers; the din of background chatter from thousands of mouths; the drone of the air conditioning. Sometimes, American-style pop music blares over montages of crowds using the escalators. Occasionally, there is silence, in which a whisper rings out like a scream.

Global Harbour is a self-contained world, a kind of microcosm of society, but it is also – with its ultra-generic opulence, gleaming surfaces and frescoes of merchant vessels to match its name – an almost phantasmagorical space, a kind of lurid utopia which promises to meet every need – eating, socializing, amusement – but delivers shallow satisfactions. An ambience of tedium, isolation and stupefying artifice prevails. Everyone appears caught up in a personal simulation. People are constantly on their phones; their virtual worlds, crammed with commodified stimulation, seem a logical extension of the mall. In ‘Nothing at All’, Lan Tian hardly looks at the world except as it appears on his phone screen. We see Yoyo and Lan Tian wearing VR headsets aiming plastic rifles into the air as they play a shooter game; looking out from one of the mall’s mezzanines, Yoyo’s mother and grandmother point out paper parrots perched in plastic trees, as if they are birdwatching. (Later, birdsong plays over another shot of the fake parrots.) In another scene, a man stops to admire a digitally animated backdrop of a snowy landscape, then pulls out his phone to record it.

In the postmodern maze of Global Harbour, distinctions between work and leisure are rendered ambiguous. Workers, like Yoyo in ‘Nothing at All’, finish their shift and then while away their downtime spending their wages in the very place that employs them. ‘What is work and what is fun? Tell me!’, Lan Tian says to Yoyo on her day off. Relations between characters become ambiguous too: the distinction between commercial transaction and heartfelt exchange, instrumental attachment and authentic bond blurs. In each half of the film the pursuer is at leisure, the pursued an employee of the mall: in ‘All’, Yoyo can afford to indulge her infatuation with Lan Tian because she’s at a loose end; Lan Tian’s affair with Perry, meanwhile, may be freighted by the fact he is paid to look after her child. In ‘Nothing at All’, Lan Tian can cultivate his obsession with Yoyo because he is unemployed; Yoyo, in turn, entertains his advances in part because it is her job to. Film-making isn’t innocent either, of course. Is Lan Tian obsessed with Yoyo herself or with his project of recording her? At one point he asks a delivery worker if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. The worker agrees, then asks, ‘So, I’m your material?’.

Read On: Fredric Jameson, ‘Future City, NLR 21.