Cannes 2023 Review: A Trio Warms to Each Other in Anthony Chen’s Tender Travelogue “The Breaking Ice”

“I guess you’re cut off from the world without your phone,” Nana (Zhou Dongyu) says to Li Haofeng (Liu Haoran) in “The Breaking Ice,” just after asking the guests on her tour bus to help him look for it. The decision to join sightseers was a surreptitious one after attending a wedding in Yanji, far from his home in China, and even with the phone, Haofeng would look like he’s putting some distance between himself and everybody else, sitting by himself at the nuptials and nestled into a corner of the bus where it appears that you’d bother him at your own risk. Nana takes an interest in him even before he’s in need of her help, asking if he’d like her to take a few photos with him in the shot rather than snapping the barren scenery and enjoying the company when he makes his way over to her when she’s apt to stand off to the side as tourists take in the local attractions, having seen and done it all herself after three years on the job.

It surely didn’t take long for writer/director Anthony Chen to come up with the title for his latest film, clearly entranced by the wintry terrain of South Korea and the possibilities of a chance encounter between lonely hearts to let down their guard, but rather than crack, “The Breaking Ice” melts with an ephemerality that makes the moment at hand seem especially important to hold onto when it seems so fleeting. Haofeng and Nana aren’t the only ones in need of companionship of some kind, though intriguingly at least for Nana, that’s because her feelings aren’t reciprocated by Han Xiao (Qu Chuxiao), who joins the two for dinner when Nana invites Haofeng back for a more informal tour of where she and her fellow Chinese ex-pat have resettled in the mountains of Korea. Xiao takes as much of a liking to Haofeng as Nana does, inviting him back for another meal where it’s noted the food tastes better and as Xiao says, “Cooking for tourists isn’t the same as cooking for friends,” with any missing flavor restored by simply having someone else around with a similar experience.

Chen strikes just the right notes of bittersweetness in his own confection, reminding a bit of the trio at the heart of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” where there’s something just slightly out of reach that each can bring forth for one another. While the feeling of getting away from it all is one shared by both those on screen and off, so to is the sense of what they’re escaping when “The Breaking Ice” alludes to emerging from a pandemic that continues to drive up costs for Xiao’s restaurant and the effects of living in isolation continue to crop up in social interactions on top of hints of the uncertain political times they live in. Slowing down time seems to be the most compassionate move Chen can make, countering his characters’ unease with a gently unfolding narrative that leaves time to process and when Nana and Xiao can even start to see something new in places that have long lost their novelty in introducing them to Haofeng, having the world open up to them seems as if it’s limited only by how much they are willing to open themselves up to it and in “The Breaking Ice,” that potential seems to go as far as the eye can see.

“The Breaking Ice” will screen again at the Cannes Film Festival on May 22nd at 11:30 am at the Salle Agnes Varda.

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