Loveland

M, 102 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Who could have foreseen that the talented Ivan Sen would set his heart on making a science fiction romance in Hong Kong? The writer-director, who made a name for himself with Indigenous stories set under a broad blue sky on the red earth of the Outback, has found the extraordinary megacity really energising. Some of his best creative work, Mystery Road, its sequel Goldstone and Toomelah, was written there.

Since his wistful teen drama, Beneath Clouds, released in 2002, Sen’s films have largely involved Indigenous subjects. There have been numerous documentaries, including Yellow Fella, about actor Tom E. Lewis, the lead actor in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and Fire Talker about the political activist Charlie Perkins. Toomelah, a deeply unsettling drama feature based on fact, was set in the town where his mother grew up.

Yet this science fiction project has been an obsession for Sen for the last decade and the city of Hong Kong where Loveland, aka Expired, is set, a place where he has discovered he loves to live and work. Some brief scenes of the Umbrella Movement and other Hong Konger citizen protests have been slipped into the flow of images, hinting at the momentous changes taking place there now.

A compelling sense of place, capitalising on Hong Kong’s futuristic potential and intoxicating chaos for its dystopian vision

As the film’s director of cinematography as well as its editor and composer, Sen adopted a comprehensively hands-on approach for his film, including wielding the Steadicam. It has resulted in a compelling sense of place, capitalising on Hong Kong’s futuristic potential. Turning its noisy, cluttered streets, its love hotels, its shopping malls, its street markets and its overwhelming, intoxicating chaos into his dystopian vision.

The action opens on Jack, Ryan Kwanten looking suitably drawn and seedy, being solicited for an assignment that he promptly carries out. Jack is an assassin for hire.

Like many inhabitants of the vast multicultural megapolis, Jack suffers from anomie. Abandoned by his parents at an early age, he grew up on the streets where he learned all that he needed to know to survive. Despite this, he is troubled by the thought that the mother who sold him and the father who walked out of his life may still be out there, somewhere.

Ryan Kwanten and Jillian Nguyen in Loveland.  Image courtesy Dark Matter Distribution

For reasons that don’t seem entirely clear, Jack is suddenly drawn to a beautiful young woman on the subway who he follows to a karaoke hotel and hires for a private session. Eventually persistence pays off. She agrees to share a meal, and the attraction becomes mutual, in a muted, distant kind of way.

Alice (Jillian Nguyen), from a village in South Vietnam, has her own story to tell, a disavowal of love and responsibility that she will reveal when she is ready. Loving doesn’t come easily to either of them. Condemned to live with dark secrets, they must struggle to recover their humanity.

As something new has been troubling Jack since he met Alice, he tracks down a former ‘life extension’ specialist who somehow managed to quit the corporation and go into hiding. Dr Bergman (Hugo Weaving a good fit for this benign character), should be able to provide him with answers, and he does.

Bergman recognizes the problem. When Jack was sold as a youngster, he was re-programmed to live life free of emotions and without any capacity to trust others. There is no place for human emotion in a city run by a corporation that turns out factory-issue humanoids to do its bidding. The novel emotions coursing through Jack’s system are toxic and will eventually kill him.

Wonderful to look at and get lost in but short on dramatic tension

Audiences will probably now watch Loveland through the prism of recent events in Hong Kong, and that’s interesting. But the film narrative is slender, and there is a heavy reliance on atmos. Loveland is beautifully crafted and the performances all convincing, but it would have benefitted from a stronger cache of ideas and a more compelling backstory.

The images of the city in long shot, a forest of high rise with dirigibles whizzing around between them, while life for the masses below is mean and dirty, is an enduring image of the city in a dystopian future. Classics of sci-fi, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis come to mind.

Loveland is simply wonderful to look at, to listen to and to get lost in. Some more dramatic tension and it would have been really compelling.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 March 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes