Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s JET LAG opens with a delicate exchange over a blank screen. The filmmaker asks her girlfriend what she thinks of the film. “I find that you always avoid exposing yourself,” she replies. Photos of a tumbling, intrepid intimacy follow: toothbrushes in a tall glass, crumpled pillows, white pills held out in a wrinkled palm. An older woman crouched next to a fluffy terrier, potted plants set on individual trolleys. “If she’s no longer there, I will just dig into my memories,” Zheng Lu says softly. Memories serve as evidence, and their heady abstraction is what drives the impetus of the film, which is a mirrored mosaic of different black and white footage: a mix of photographs, DVCAM videos, and moments captured on smartphones. The filmmaker holds the camera, and though we rarely see her, there are glimpses: in one interlude, fingers slipped into the DV strap, she turns toward a CCTV that catches her silhouette, flecked with drops of rain.
At the eye of this story is Zheng Lu’s grandmother, seen with close-cropped hair and a slender smile. Her story is refracted through that of her father (the filmmaker’s great-grandfather), who left, abruptly, when she was a child; moving from China to Myanmar, he spent his final days as a monk. The family, decades later, set off to trace this chapter of his life, stopping at the monastery and the graveyard, holding his prayer beads in their hands. It’s an unresolved, hazy past—as most family histories are—and flickers through each character differently. As the camera lingers on the grandmother we watch as she dabs her eyes with a folded handkerchief, cups her face to catch a pause, or tilts her slight body out of a window for air. When the family asks whether they are pursuing an illusion, the grandmother responds calmly, massaging her calves, “Why is chasing the truth pointless?” She seems to be exploring a paradox: what if history was malleable, something to be reexamined or even rewritten by way of its fragments? For her the journey to Myanmar is less about what she finds, and more about the mood that it puts her in, the memories—both recounted and imagined—that it invokes. Her absent father hovers above this dilemma, who, despite his disappearance, still remains patriarch of the family.
The camera, at all times handheld, is always closely tethered to its subjects: trying to glean the sudden, fleeting things so easily missed by the human eye.
Zheng Lu struggles with this, and through the making of this film she negotiates her discomfort. “I’m bringing a camera into my family so that I can be myself while being a part of them,” she explains; it’s how she fits in. In a scene from Hangzhou, she speaks on the phone, describing a train she sees slinking through the city. Both she and her interlocutor seem to be in institutional quarantine, in different rooms on different floors, trying to figure which part of the city they are in. Zheng Lu explains she can only spot the train because she is zooming into the cityscape with her DV, which idly pans over faraway buildings and flashing lights. “Someone’s flying a kite, but I can’t get a clear shot.” The camera, at all times handheld, is always closely tethered to its subjects: trying to glean the sudden, fleeting things so easily missed by the human eye.
In a monologue about an abusive father the girlfriend—lying on her back, a tear falling steadily across her temple—explains how she will eventually have to “confront and chew up" her memories of him. She wants to identify the ways in which she still carries the trauma; she wants to literally digest what continues to hurt her. Trauma is a reckless energy, prone to sudden combustions. JET LAG shows us how the past moves through us in unresolved knots. “If I keep on unleashing it like this, it will only end up hurting someone else," she remarks, her eyes blinking, the light diffuse across her face. In early lockdowns the lovers share a flat in Graz, Austria, and on summer days they make fruity drinks, thinly slicing citrus to slip it onto the rims of stemmed glasses. They spread out to soak up the sun, their bodies turned into landscapes at once smooth and rippling. “You can never cut blood ties,” the grandmother says to the filmmaker in a scene where they sit across from each other on a kitchen table. But blood ties are composed of archetypes, and Zheng Lu does her best to undo this hierarchy: just as important are the family that we choose, that we build our lives around—our friends.
Blood ties are composed of archetypes, and Zheng Lu does her best to undo this hierarchy.
The filmmaker and her friends share a discursive intimacy, one of the exercises they seem to do—on rooftops, under lamplight growing foggy with cigarette smoke—is read essays about events from their childhood that are yet unsettled. It’s an activity that initiates the ‘chewing up’. Five friends sit around a table, slowly opening their eyes after a guided meditation. One of them begins to read from an essay—written and spoken with the tender inflections of a language that is still being learned—about an unwell uncle. The family is ashamed of his AIDS diagnosis, the essay explains, but not her. She recalls the small details of when she last saw him, how the room smelled. “I remember I met his secret,” she says, her uncle and his lover, their limbs entwined, and how they looked at each other “like time stoped in the air”. After he died, she explains, “his funeral was deserted.”
As JET LAG draws to a close, Zheng Lu video calls a cousin in Myanmar. The latter is sitting in a room with the curtains closed, house lights switched off. She says she hears gunshots ring through the air; the country is in the throes of another military coup. Over 500 people have died in the protests so far, Aung San Suu Kyi has been placed under house arrest. “Some of my friends are still in prison,” the cousin nods, looking so young, just a teenager maybe, with wide glasses and a bright smile. “When they fire their guns, they aim nowhere but the head. The target dies on the spot.” Their network is spotty, they shrug, not sure when the internet will be cut off again. Zheng Lu asks a measured question: have your parents talked to you about what happens if the situation doesn’t change, what your life will be like? The cousin pushes their hair back, a slow smirk catching hold of their face. She has an answer she doesn’t need to think about too much: "No! Because we have to win.”
When the credits appear we learn that AI was used to replace the cousin’s face with that of an actor; it’s not safe for her identity to be revealed. Her obscured presence in the film carries the great-grandfather’s past into the present, two eras of uncertainty in which inaccessible elements hold a profound speculative power. The cousin’s determination—and that of the five friends reading essays to each other at nighttime—signals an alternate future, one that glows with revolutionary aspiration, and a fearless desire to challenge the past.
Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Goa. They are co-editor of “The White Review” and their first book “Remember the Details” is out now with Floating Opera Press.