Yucheng is leaving for a business trip, always preoccupied and not quite there when he’s at home, and always leaving home. His wife Luli takes her life just before he departs, leaving him bewildered and devastated.
At the morgue, he gets to use a special telephone booth to call back in time and talk to Luli. He gets to talk to her for five minutes but he cannot explicitly prevent her death. So he decides to call her right before she commits her final irrevocable act, in hopes that she will somehow change her mind. But as he tries desperately to connect with her emotionally and remind her of his love, he discovers what he has to say reveals more about himself than about her.
This meditative sci-fi short, directed by Shange Zhang and written by Nichole DeLaura, has a remarkable device that powers the story’s main conceit, which is the ability to communicate with the dead one last time in the past. But the telephone booth here is the conduit for a much more tragic story of a troubled marriage endangered by years of neglect and heartbreak.
With such emotionally-harrowing narrative terrain, the writing emphasizes the psychological and the interior, particularly as they relate to relationships. The dialogue is incidental at first — mostly pre-travel conversation on a phone, as the wife listens from the bathroom — but much is communicated in the unspoken and the silence.
The visual style is somber, muted and subdued, but there is a precision and carefulness in the framing that emphasizes the almost abstract way Yucheng relates to his wife — almost as if she’s a fact of existence and not a person. In fact, the couple never shares a frame together, a salient artistic decision that says much about their relationship. Careful creative strategies like these emphasize the separateness of the pair, creating a lonely distance in the film’s tone as well.
The performances of the film also stay within this quieter, subdued register, though both actors who play the couple — Zhan Wang Yucheng and Eon Song as Luli — deliver powerful moments of raw pain and anguish. Yucheng occupies his section of the relationship with a busy indifference, barely noticing that he hasn’t seen his wife before he leaves, but Luli experiences her marriage as isolating and alienating, leading to her final devastating act.
The narrative of “The Five Minutes” is in many ways an attempt at redemption, and a unique twist on stories that are essentially tragedies of miscommunication, especially those about what people waited too long to say. In the end, speaking from the heart is not necessarily something one does for the other person, especially if it’s too little and too late. Communicating from the heart to someone you love is an act of grace, solace and care for yourself — and frees yourself of the burden of regret and sorrow.