“I think VR is going to be the next big thing,” said director Jia Zhangke in an interview with the Associated Press. Zhangke’s not alone in this thought. In recent years, VR has begun its experimental phase in the film world. VR’s potential isn’t untapped, but in test mode. Directors all across the world are trying to make sense of it. Zhangke is one of the latest of those.
Justin Lin, director of many films in the Fast and the Furious franchise and season two of HBO’s True Detective, recently helmed a monster-following short film for Google, entitled Help. Nicole Kidman starred in a 360-degree short film advertisement called Reimagine, showcasing the luxury of a new airbus. Nonny de la Peña’s (also known as “the godmother of virtual reality“) most recent immersive journalistic VR venture, Kiya, places the viewer as a casual observer of real-life domestic violence situation that turned deadly, soundtracked by the actual 911 call.
A short that inhibits the audience with freedom
Zhangke’s impending short film will explore none of these options, and instead take a more nuanced approach (much like Zhangke’s own filmography). Zhangke aims to film a “gentle romance” in lieu of wild action, boring spatial exploration, or harrowing empathetic situations. Instead of trying to take advantage of virtual reality, he wants to create a short film that simply exists within it. A short that doesn’t feel gimmicky, while also inhibiting the audience with freedom.
“In the past, the audience could only imagine the world inside and outside the frame,” he said. “VR liberates an audience and allows people to independently choose what we want to be concerned with. Audiences become more important.” At an event that Zhangke recently spoke at, Richard Peña, former director of the New York Film Festival, recalled his own issues with the current state of VR filmography. Specifically in a detective short, where the filmmaker urged him to look left, but he found himself more interested in looking right, to see what else was going on in his surroundings.
Zhangke is a leading filmmaker in the “Sixth Generation” Chinese cinema movement. In contrast to heart-warming, action-oriented wuxia genre films (martial arts hero-centric flicks), Zhangke and other directors experimented with more realist depictions of Chinese society. His most celebrated works include Platform (2000), which follows a young theater troupe in a small town in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, and Still Life (2006), a quiet film about two people searching for their spouses in a town being upheaved by the Three Gorges Dam due to imminent flooding.
You can read more about Zhangke’s planned virtual reality romance here.