That’s Cantonese, English, French, Lingala and Mandarin, by the way.
I feel bad for director Måns Månsson. He clearly has a penchant for writing and staging character-centric drama, and the very premise of Stranded In Canton is absolutely ripe for it. Ambitious entrepreneur Lebrun travels from Congo to Canton with nothing more than a dream, and in his isolation, he ends up biting off more than he can chew. The film opens with Lebrun struggling to learn Cantonese, enunciating and repeating each word after his tutor. We’re soon introduced to his business, where he makes political t-shirts with the intention of selling them back in The Democratic Republic of Congo, but he’s also indebted to his Lebanese business partner, who’s been holding the t-shirts for some time now. His only remaining connection to Congo is an “elder” whom he speaks to over the phone, promising them he’ll return soon with money and success. It’s a story of loneliness and course-correction, universal themes that take on new shades when given such a specifically international setting, but Månsson’s decisions here are almost exceedingly amateur.
The filmmaker has a keen sense of spatial awareness, and an understanding of how each character relates to their environment, but when it comes to how we’re supposed to relate to them, or how they relate to each other, there’s more than a lot to be desired. His meandering medium shots are great when we need to get a sense of how Lebrun and his friend Sylvie fit into their respective backdrops, but the only other option he carries in his tool bag seems to be a tight, shaky close up that leaves room to neither breathe, nor understand each characters’ function in any given scene. The constant jumps between the two also results in the film being only able to function on one of two settings – ‘somewhat removed’ and ‘kind of intense,’ though the material isn’t consistently strong enough to maintain the constant intensity warranted by all the close ups. While it might work for the moments where Lebrun starts to realize how faulty his endeavors have been, to compliment this would be akin to complimenting a broken clock for displaying the right time twice a day. The rest of the time, it comes off like a giant portrait of a face with little to no detail or expression. It makes projection or presumption easy, but at the same time mandatory, because there’s no other information in the frame, often times not even where the other character is in relation to the subject.
This is, of course, a purely technical breakdown, but it spills over to how the inter-personal relationships play out. Månsson knows where to put his characters (an overhead plan of his blocking would be a joy to look at), but he struggles with where to put his camera. The vast and uncertain waters between the Guangdong skyline and the characters standing side by side on a ferry are reduced to no more than a painted backdrop introduced only in an establishing shot, as we view their conversation in tight over-the-shoulder close ups. When Sylvie finally realizes how self-absorbed Lebrun is, he’s dancing in front of her, celebrating his recent luck and singing his own praises, but we’re once again treated to an over-the-shoulder close up, this time obscured by his swaying back and forth, which is an odd decision because it’s neither as stylistically out of the way as the director seems to think, nor is it focused on the character to whom the scene is central – the protagonist Lebrun. It’s as if a better director with a strong theatrical background came in and staged the scene, and Månsson simply let his camera run.
There’s also an uncertainty on behalf of the film, in terms of whether or not it wants to be political. I don’t know much about the politics of Congo, but Lebrun switching the political allegiance of his cheap t-shirt line by putting profanities on it feels like more of a joke than a statement about either the country or the character, because the t-shirts could’ve been about a sports team that wasn’t very well liked and it wouldn’t have changed anything, but to say that the film is apolitical is a falsehood as well, since political messages are at the very center of Lebrun’s line of work. And of course, when this comes up as he’s sitting across from his Lebanese creditor, trying to convince him of his new business plan, and the political and personal dynamics are tossed out the window anyway since we only see the characters through the same hand-held close ups.
It’s a shame, really. This is the kind of story I tend to root for, but it’s also the sort of thoughtless execution that makes me want to shake the director by the shoulders. His character’s journey ends up muddled an undercooked due to a lack of clarity that could’ve been avoided. Lebrun’s failures pile up before he finally decides to get his life together. H makes the same promises over the phone he made before, but burns his remaining t-shirts before deciding to make a fresh start, none of which seems to matter by the time we actually get to it because all we really know about Lebrun is his face and the faces of the people around him.
There’s certainly thought put in to the construction of Stranded In Canton, but not enough in the places it seems to matter most. Sure, one can certainly argue that it’s the script that’s most important, but then again, how that script is presented is equally important in terms of how you want people to relate to it. The lens isn’t just a mechanical device, it’s your audience’s eye. If you ignore something as vital as that, then even the best script can’t save you.