Whom among us hasn’t felt lost and alone, even in a crowded room of people? In some cases, the larger the environment, the smaller one may feel due to the vastness of it all. In that case, seeking connection to anything or anyone may push someone to indulge in invasive behavior, even fantasy-driven ones, in an attempt to cross the chasm between ourselves and others. Drawing inspiration from Àlex Lora’s 2013 short film Only Solomon Lee, writer/director Antonio Tibaldi’s (They Father’s Chair) new film, We Are Living Things, reduces the delusional, predatory aspects of the short, while shifting what remains into something more nurturing and loving. The end result is a feature layered with metaphor about connection, personal agency, and the commodification of humanity.
Under the cover of night, two individuals experience vastly different versions of the city they live in. Repairperson Solomon (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) uses his metal detector to track down magnetic rock, while Chuyao (Xingchen Lyu) is led by her “uncle” Tiger (Zao Wang) from venue to venue to enjoy various potential suiters. Through a chance encounter, the two cross paths when Solomon is requested to go to Chuyao’s apartment to fix a leak, in which he learns she has a similar shared fascination with unidentified flying objects. This realization creates within Solomon a need to get to know the quiet, insular Chuyao, but it’s not until a unique opportunity arises that he’s able to gain her trust to convey to her their shared interest without scaring her away.
Being that Tibaldi’s iteration of this story is based on one that’s undeniably creepy in its voyeuristic sexual nature, We Are Living Things is required in many respects to maintain the same notions in order for Tibaldi’s film to retain its connection to the source material. But where Lora’s Solomon seemed to steal people’s objects, repair them, and then rifle through their personal information, almost stalking them in search of curing his loneliness, Tibaldi’s Solomon appears to exist in solitude comfortably, spending his days working odd jobs at the Sure We Can facility (which he also lives at in a small office space) and exploring the sky for signs of life at night. In any other story, this alone would put Solomon on the fringes of society, but Tibaldi’s adaptation also makes sure the audience knows that Solomon is an undocumented individual. This places him as an “other” in the story, forced to learn trades and crafts that will keep him off the radar of law enforcement while able to continue his research. Similarly, Tibaldi expands the object of Solomon’s attention, in this case Chuyao, keeping her as a call girl of sorts but making it so she, too, is an undocumented individual. What truly binds them, placing them further into the periphery is their shared interest in UFO phenomenon. Each have been touched by UFOs in such a way that their lives are forever changed, pushing them to the paths they are currently on, their intertwining directly related to this fact alone.
Lora’s work is dark. No question or argument about that in the slightest. Tibaldi maintains some of this darkness by infusing his Solomon with some of Lora’s more lurid tendencies, like stealing from Chuyao when she’s not aware, as well as following her to work. The majority difference, and this isn’t to handwave away how disturbing this is, resides in Solomon’s intent in the feature film. The intent, for all its discomfort, is to try to talk with Chuyao about their shared interest. However, in this initial meeting, she doesn’t remain where he can find her, making conversation harder and then she refuses to speak with him when he comes to her work. Frankly, I applaud Tibaldi for making Solomon earn our trust, as well as Chuyao’s, especially after the flagrant violation of privacy. From her side, a strange person has come into her apartment and followed her to work; why would she want to engage with him at all? As an added layer of disconnection between the two, each are of a different ethnic community — he from Mexico, she from China — so there’s immediately a cultural dissimilarity/distrust. Add in his flagrant disrespect of her privacy and there comes a large hurdle the script must clear in order for any of the story to expunge the gnarly portions at its narrative center. Without getting into spoilers, Tibaldi clears this fairly well, utilizing Solomon’s lurking as a benefit versus detriment, plus it helps that Chuyao’s circumstances are so dire that Solomon, by comparison, feels like a white knight.
Having explored the comparison of characters from one project to the next, something that’s entirely unique to Tibaldi’s work is the layered metaphor of alienation within the film. First, there’s the title: We Are Living Things. Taken directly, it seems to symbolize the feeling that humanity, as a whole, contains within itself the ability to forget that others are capable of feeling, of pain, of the qualities that we find in ourselves. This recognition failure is what leads to the much of the external tension as both Solomon and Chuyao are undocumented individuals living in the United States. If one or both were naturalized in some way, they might feel a little less isolation in their presentation, not needing to be more active at night or shy away from any kind of law enforcement. Except, thanks to at least one moment in the film, that neither are Caucasian-presenting means that they would never fully blend into what is considered American, so they’d be Othered immediately anyway. Because they are undocumented actually makes their situation worse as they are each more likely to be abused or taken advantage of due to the need of trying to stay under the radar. Solomon seems to find gentler, uplifting individuals, whereas Chuyao is literally being pimped out to the point where Tiger insists on chipping her for her safety. Neither individual has any true agency because of their perceived status. Though both are commodified, Solomon is provided work and a place to stay, a more reciprocal-appearing existence; whereas Chuyao is absolutely stripped of her autonomy and privacy. Most of this is done by Tiger, but some is done by Solomon, which the script rightfully acknowledges. Then, going further, there’s the fact that both are interested in UFOs because each has respectively been touched by an otherworldly experience. This separates the two even further from the small population they exist within, those that know of this interest shunning them further (in fact it’s a catalyst for how Chuyao ended up in her current situation). Through these metaphors, Tibaldi explores how humanity as a whole created a caste system that constantly pushes others down, stripping them of their humanity with layer breach. “We Are Living Things” is a declaration of humanity, agency, and self-worth.
As strong as the narrative themes are, bringing them together are two deft performances. So much of the narrative is about how outside of things both Solomon and Chuyao are and the performances from Guerrero (ROMA) and Lyu (The Last Post) nail their respective isolation in the world. Lyu has the slightly easier job as Chuyao is always sympathetically positioned. She’s estranged from her family, she’s lost in a place with little tether, and all she wants to do is figure out this mystery but lacks the means to do so. It’s by no means simple, yet Lyu gives Chuyao both grace and strength. Conversely, Gurrero has the significantly more difficult job as Solomon does represent a real danger to any woman: a male willing to cross personal space and boundaries. If not for reasonable circumstances created by Tiger’s involvement, Solomon would remain a real threat, making it difficult for the audience to ease their reactions to Guerrero’s performance. That Guerrero can make the audience, first, feel a certain dread and discomfort, then later, switch to unease for his own safety and wellbeing is remarkable. Some of what Solomon does crosses several lines of trust and yet, Guerrero enables these acts, especially once the audience knows the full threat in the background, to possess a certain heroism which enables us to look past the discomfort and see who Solomon really is and what he wants. Credit, again, to Lyu for never presenting Chuyao as someone without agency, even when mostly diminished, as the character needs to stand with Solomon and even, much later, serve as a pillar for him as the story reaches its moving conclusion.
Tabaldi’s We Are Living Things is a proper tapestry of storytelling. The narrative utilizes layered metaphors to explore the complexity of humanity in how it commodifies and sections out each member, even as we all seek out connection. The performances manage to make terrible breaches of trust acts of faith, which the script affords time so that no character acts out of turn. There is time and patience for each act to have a consequence, for there to be weight and meaning. Of course, woven throughout the film and their performances, Luca Bigazzi’s (This Must Be the Place) beautiful naturalistic cinematography ensures that the mostly stripped-down production never loses a sense of authenticity. Though the film allows doubt to linger in its conclusion as to whether UFOs are real (even with the inclusion of the U.S. government’s actual admission of such things), its ending implies that We Are Living Things isn’t so much about life beyond our planet as it is about the life we make on it.
In select theaters beginning August 12th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official We Are Living Things website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.