NYFF 2020: THE CALMING: Sweet Content is Sorrow’s Balm

It’s hard to think of a more fitting title for Chinese filmmaker Song Fang’s sophomore feature than The Calming. A spiritual sister to Chantal Akerman’s classic portrait of female solitude, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, The Calming follows a recently single woman filmmaker as she travels around China, Hong Kong, and Japan, showing her work and stopping to reconnect with friends and family along the way. As quiet and meditative a film as you’ll see this year, The Calming may be too placid for some, but those who allow themselves to just sit back and absorb the film’s tranquil exploration of emotional and intellectual transition will be richly rewarded.

On the Road

The journey of Lin (the magnetic Qi Xi) begins in Tokyo, where she reconnects with an older Japanese friend in the film industry over dinner at a restaurant that her friend claims has barely changed in the 40 years he has been a patron. In the middle of their conversation — a warm one, despite being slightly stilted by the time they have spent apart as well as the necessity of them both speaking English instead of their native languages — Lin suddenly blurts out that she and her partner have broken up. “You introduced us,” she says simply, barely pausing in her enjoyment of the meal, “so I wanted to tell you.”

NYFF 2020: THE CALMING: Sweet Content is Sorrow’s Balm
source: Huanxi Media

Their reasons for breaking up are not touched upon, nor does Lin directly reference the relationship again apart from telling another longtime friend that she’d prefer not to talk about it. Nonetheless, the ending of this relationship looms large throughout the film as Lin migrates from one city to another with her suitcase in tow, contemplating what to do next in both her professional and personal lives. She’s showing her most recent documentary to appreciative audiences while trying to decide what the focus of her next project should be, and meeting up with friends who have recently gotten engaged or had children while being nowhere near the verge of such a major life change herself.


The Calming prefers to observe Lin from a respectful distance than to ascribe any kind of pointed psychological motivation to her actions; there is no voiceover to tell you what she is thinking in the film’s many long, quiet moments, nor a prominent musical score to try and convey her emotional state through song (with the exception of one powerful moment I’ll touch upon later). As Lin, Qi Xi’s exterior is largely opaque, her face still and almost impossible to read, with the exception of rare moments of pure joy, such as when she congratulates a friend on getting his marriage license.

Yet by keeping the character’s emotional depths hidden beneath the surface, instead of wearing them on her sleeve, Qi makes Lin a far more fascinating character than she would have been if she had delivered extensive, melodramatic monologues about the dissolution of her relationship and her fears of creative stagnation. Together, Song and Qi leave the audience with plenty of room for wondering, and that is part of what keeps The Calming so surprisingly engaging throughout its 90 minutes.

NYFF 2020: THE CALMING: Sweet Content is Sorrow’s Balm
source: Huanxi Media

While little about The Calming is obvious, it is clear that Lin currently exists in a form of limbo, hovering on the cusp of a new beginning while not being entirely sure what that entails for her. And yet, as one watches Lin gaze out her hotel room window at the neon-lit cityscape that surrounds her, or embark on a solo hike through the lush natural landscape of rural East Asia, one is left with an overwhelming sense not of melancholy, but of peace. Lin is in solitude, but she is not lonely; as the film progresses, one can see that she is increasingly comfortable all by herself, taking time to visit art exhibits, go to shows and search at her own pace for the next great inspiration in her life, whatever it may be. She might not necessarily be happy — at least, not yet — but she’s slowly but surely on her way there.

It is hard to watch Song’s The Calming and not be reminded of Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, which follows the titular filmmaker as she traverses Western Europe to promote her new film while wrestling with her own sense of isolation from the world and everyone she knows. The nomadic lifestyle of the working filmmaker, who must go on the road to promote her work and keep her name at the top of minds, is clearly an ideal vessel for introspective drama, with these storytellers using the external journey to reflect the inner one.

NYFF 2020: THE CALMING: Sweet Content is Sorrow’s Balm
source: Huanxi Media

That both films are directed by and centered on women feels like a declaration of sorts: our creative and personal angst is just as worthy of cinematic depiction and discussion as that of men. And while a man may lie at the root of Lin’s troubles, one takes comfort in the way the film does not allow him to take center stage; he is neither seen nor heard, an amorphous figure that exists only to spark Lin’s quest for self-fulfillment. In a world where women are often used as mere devices to further a man’s emotional development, the reversal can be quite refreshing.


At one point in the latter part of The Calming, Lin goes to a performance of Handel’s oratorio Alexander Balus. The lyrics are such a powerful distillation of Lin’s journey throughout the film that it is impossible not to touch upon them here:

“Convey me to some peaceful shore,
Where no tumultuous billows roar,
Where life, though joyless, still is calm,
And sweet content is sorrow’s balm.
There free from pomp and care, to wait,
Forgetting and forgot, the will of fate.”

By the time the film ends, one feels as though Lin has, at the very least, found that peaceful shore. What comes next remains to be seen.

What do you think? What are some of your favorite breakup movies? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Calming is screening as part of the Main Slate at the 2020 New York Film Festival.

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