There is a melted block of ice. Its tightly bound together atoms have now separated, but keep trying to find each other, to return to that sense of fullness again. This is how Argentinian writer and director Juan Cabral sees the world.
"I really think that humanity is like this block of ice that's melted, and we're really trying to connect and make it work. And I find that beautiful," he tells Firstpost. "Maybe it's hopeless, I don't know. But that's what I like about us. And if we fail or not doesn't matter. As long as we try, that's what's important."
This is the philosophical lens through which he presents his debut feature Two/One. It follows two men, Khai (Song Yang), an executive in Shanghai, and Canadian ski jumper Kaden (Boyd Holbrook). Living on opposite sides of the planet, they seem connected by their sleep cycle; as soon as one sleeps, the other wakes up. "It's like the universe watching humans trying to connect," says Cabral about the philosophy that has guided his feature.
As the men go about their lives, juggling career pressures, family complications, and love interests, parallels start to emerge in their stories. They are both lonely, vulnerable, and eventually prey to the same fate. While stories are about individuals, and the film does care about its protagonists, it is communicating something much larger than the characters' intertwined stories.
"What happens in life is not every story is a success. But every small thing we do matters. And it's all also pointless, on the grand scale," says Cabral. "Everything is important and nothing is important. Everything is real, nothing is real." Tackling as it is such paradoxes, Two/One raises more questions than it offers answers. It makes a viewer reflect on the nature of the universe we are living in, and how little we really understand it. And most centrally, it meditates on the concept of sleep.
"What happens when you go to sleep?" is the inquiry that governed the concept of Cabral's film. There are, in life, instances where one wakes up with clarity, connecting things they could not before. Or with thoughts and ideas whose origins they are unsure of. "It's not just like you go to sleep and recover energy. Something happens there that's close to insanity." Then there is the mystery of dreams, where they are coming from and their analysis, something every culture around the world has tried to make sense of.
"We're having this conversation now and we both agree that this is reality. (But) there's this fixation that dreams are crazy and anything can happen. But in the film, when you're dreaming, you think that's normal, all of it makes sense, and there's logic." As more similarities crop up in the characters' stories, like a ladybug around them, or firecrackers, one expects the viewer to be theorising about which story might be reality and which the dream.
In the second half however, the film quickly jumps off this absorbing theoretical plane into the real world, answering the question, 'What would happen if they meet?' And the answer is at once defining of Cabral's theory about connection, a joke, a moment of horror, and ultimately, a resounding instance of not very much happening. "The rule is you're either awake or you're asleep. And that's it. It's like a perverse universe."
If both characters exist in the same reality, then the film, which is reflecting on dreams, is also focused on humanity's subconscious. Like Khai perhaps moving the lighter but later confused because he was sure he had placed it elsewhere. Along the same vein, the films tackles the "thoughts in the background, things we don't say, the omission of thing." The things that happen to the characters then can be, equally, coincidence or destiny, with Khai's father at one point telling him not to confuse the two.
Two/One makes you wonder what the important things are in life, and which ones are mere chance.
"I think the answer is both. It is coincidence and it is destiny and it's up to you." It's up to each of us, suggests the film, to choose what's best for us, each little decision we make shaping the way forward. "And I think the film shows that 'that's good, that's bad', but without trying to stop (them) or being overly dramatic." Sharing these ideas are, says Cabral, "a genuine gesture," not mere theoretical manipulations, and have been brewing in his mind for several years, something the award-winning advertising director even explored perfunctorily in his 2014 advert Beds.
The making of Two/One was preempted by a moment in Cabral's life almost 10 years ago when he first thought that he could perhaps do a film. "I didn't want to be like those architects who makes a house very early, and then regret. So I waited, learned, shot a lot of commercials."
While the concept was clear, the film, shot on two continents and in two languages, was a logistical challenge for the director. "There's a point where if you want to make a film, the one you (first) imagined is pretty much impossible. You really have to convince people, beg, rewrite, get people to criticise your film, understand that you're not going to get the money you want."
Cabral envisioned, for instance, the film being half-Norwegian and half-Chinese. But since viewing choices depend largely on algorithms, there would be no market for such a film, leading to the English-speaking Kaden, living in Canada, making the film half-English while retaining the half-Chinese of his vision. The latter also meant working with translators, "but there's something human there, it was fun to work out the scenes." The ski jumping meant shooting in the snow, another hurdle for the filmmaker. Cabral is also intimately aware of the fact that the industry is run mainly by entertainment, and that his film does not fit the bill.
"It takes everything out of you," says Cabral about filmmaking. "There were days when I was like 'I might never make this film'. You're halfway up the mountain and you're like 'Shall I go down?' But you never know you're halfway. If plays with your mind." But even through all this, he strongly believes in Two/One and the ideas it communicates. "I think if you watch this, it'll be a lasting experience, hopefully."
Two/One is streaming on MUBI WORLD.