Project Atom Boi follows the story of Yuanzi (Xiaonan Wang), a doomer who, pressured by a self-indulgent Filmmaker (Francesca Marcolina), starts re-exploring the memories of her childhood in China. Yuanzi grew up in Factory 404, a Cold War ghost town in the Gansu province that was built in the fifties with the sole purpose of hosting a nuclear weapon. As Yuanzi travels back in time, we also meet her childhood best friend Erdan and her grandfather (both played by Kelvin Chan).
The dynamic between The Filmmaker and Yuanzi is quite compelling. Are they friends or artistic partners? Their conversations nudge us to think of the existing power dynamics in creative relationships. Questions about storytelling in the age of identity politics (who gets to tell whose stories?) are also swiftly asked.
Throughout the play, we witness their relationship transforming from tense to caring. The Filmmaker holds the cards at the beginning of the play, directing and triggering Yuanzi’s memories with help from the audience. However, halfway through, Yuanzi starts gaining confidence, speaking up and setting boundaries. This is moving, as it implies that she gains strength through the re-exploration of her past. A great addition to the duo is Chan’s heart-warming and engaging performance, which brings balance and comedic relief through his performance as Erdan, an enthusiastic child who dreams of becoming an astronaut.
The biggest strength of the play is its fearless experimental approach. At times, The Filmmaker directs her phone towards the audience, projecting the real-time video into the back of the stage, creating a void of repetition that not only breaks the fourth wall but expands it. The play is also broken down into several scenes, which give order to the fragmented narrative. This format is quite fun and engaging, as audience members draw on whiteboards, playing a darker version of Pictionary that propels specific moments in Yuanzi’s story.
A small but wonderful detail are the title projections, which are beautifully designed and in line with the digital culture aesthetic they reference. The technical skill behind the transitions also deserves a mention. For instance, in one scene, Yuanzi talks us through the layout of Factory 404, while the projection smoothly shifts, rhythmically displaying photographs and maps of the town as she names each landmark.
The only part of Project Atom Boi that doesn’t meet expectations is the exploration of internet culture and doomerism. The description of the show made it sound like this was a crucial element of the play. However, these parts are reduced to short, specific references that might be lost to audience members who are not properly embedded into the doomer internet culture.
However, when these scenes are explored, they are phenomenal. The scene where Yuanzi’s grandfather is dancing against the backdrop of a nuclear explosion is an astonishing moment that could well belong to an art installation. The juxtaposition of the Chinese traditional song with Kelvin Chan’s arresting presence and Vapourwave aesthetics is something to behold. Visually, it expresses what Yuanzi delivered earlier as a line: “My grandparents thought they were idealists, but in reality, they were propagandists.” This scene is exactly what doomers dream of when they are exploring the depths of the internet at 3am and listening to Molchat Doma. More of this would satisfy that craving.
The play is undeniably charged with political discourse, but the format, combined with the enthusiasm of the cast, creates a balanced narrative that never feels loaded or falls into clichés. As a work in progress piece, it does feel like some of the narrative needs to be tidier; as at times it was difficult to follow Yuanzi’s train of thought and The Filmmakers intentions. However, its visual strength combined with the multidisciplinary approach, represents a great foundation to an unconventional story.
Project Atom Boi runs through 29 January at VAULT Festival.
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