Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2016 3:17 pm 
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A dreamy Chinese road picture that's a visual tour-de-force -- and an impressive debut

Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong), the protagonist of Bi Gan's complex and breathtakingly enthusiastic exploration of cinematic possibility, has for some time now been a country doctor, working in a small clinic with an an older woman doctor, Guang Lian (Zhao Daqing), in the subtropical province of Guizhou. In time through hints and finally his own crabwise confession in a barber shop, we learn that he previously spent nine years in prison, taking the rap for others. In the long dreamy sequence that makes up most of the latter part of the film Chen is on the road, initially at least in search of his nephew, Weiwei. He has believed that his gangster half brother, Weiwei's cruel father Crazy Face (Xie Lixun), had sold the boy. There are other differences with Crazy Face -- over inheritance of a house, and his mother's tombstone. On his trip Chen hopes not only to visit Weiwei but a former gangster associate known as Monk who now runs a watch shop and an old friend of Guang Lian's she's been dreaming of lately and wants to send a gift to; she says she's too old to travel.

So this is a road picture, one with elaborate motives and back stories, concepts and commentary with built-in homages to great Chinese filmmakers of the previous generations. But it's also simply a demonstration of the joy of filmmaking. From the outset Bi Gan shows a passionate awareness of the aesthetic possibilities of his rural Chinese milieu, of everything the eye of the camera encounters. The lens of his cinematographer Wang Tianxing, remarkably debuting here, seems to gobble up the diverse scenes, whether they be a sweeping verdant hill landscape, a jumble of rundown buildings and debris, a mobile crane performing a nimble maneuver off a truck, a bunch of motorcycles mounted by young men acting as rudimentary cabbies, or young toughs -- in classic scenes right out of iconic Hou Hsiau-hsien films -- hanging out, striking poses, and playing pool. Whether the material filmed is superficially "ugly" or "beautiful" or simply drab, it's arranged on screen in ways that show a sure eye and a keen sense of composition. But the scene is what matters, not some arbitrary arrangement.

And then, along Chen's journey by train, bus, truck, and motorcycle, the camera takes flight, following people around and weaving in and out the hillside town for a 40-minute unbroken long take in the virtuoso tour-de-force manner of Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, but focused not on period costumes and museum art works but humid landscape, scruffy men, pretty women, roads, motorcycles, interiors with decaying walls.

The search, which is also a memorial journey, taking Chen to the riverside city of Kaili and town of Dang Mai, has seemed primarily motivated by concern for the well-being of Weiwei (Luo Fengyang as a youth, Yu Shixue older), whom he meets magically by chance. But voiceovers of poetry, the mesmerizing camera movements, begin to suspend us in a magical present time, like a drug high, where plans and goals are suspended and nothing matters but everything is hyperreal. We are there. China, this awesome, terrifying, destroyed and destroying country, seems magical again. One is brought back to the early films of Wong Kar-wai, Hou, and Jia Zhang-ke. (Others have seen a link with the Thai Cannes darling and explorer of magic and ghosts, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but that seems more of a stretch.)

Reviewed by Derek Elley for Film Business Asia in his typical meticulous but not infrequently grumpy manner, Kaili Blues doesn't fare so well. Obviously, more is going on than we can possibly gather in one or even many viewings, and we need a guide. Elley helpfully points out that the Chinese title means "Roadside Picnic," and is the name of the main character's anthology of poems. Elley grants that the filming is a tour-de-force: "In sheer planning — as the camera follows the doctor on a motorbike, up and down stairs, into people's homes, on a river ferry, and across a bridge — it's a considerable achievement, with hardly a glitch." But Elly is unmoved. He doesn't see this as a meaningful explication of the narrative or character, or as having the mystical quality that is desired, as suggested by the voiceover "foggy poems" (as he condescendingly calls them) attributed to the main character (and actually by Bi Gan, who is a published poet).

But I was thrilled, and found the latter sequences of Kaili Blues made me feel high -- high on this exotic world, on the joy of filmmaking and film-watching. I remembered the excitement when a tip in the San Francisco paper led me to a hitherto unknown movie house in Chinatown (or so I remember it) and I saw the first two films of Wong Kar-wai. I didn't make much sense of them then. But I had entered a new world, and was hooked. What Elly calls "a conventional Mainland indie" is dense with ethnographic detail (including visits to the Miau people from whom Bi Gan comes, the locations being his native region), a Diamond Sutra epigraph, intricate motives and backstories (with possibilities for future development) and it's not at all out of place for John DeFore to say in his Hollywood Reporter review that Kaili Blues "invites academic thesis-level dissection." But he is also right to add -- we feel the freshness of the energy and enthusiasm -- that "thanks in part to Chen's unforced performance, it never feels pretentious." Whoever wrote in the ND/NF blub calling this "one of the most audacious and innovative debuts of recent years" was certainly on the right track (despite a surprising lack of buzz since Locarno). There could be a glorious future here.

Kaili Blues/Lu bian ye can/ 路邊野餐, 113 mins. debuted at Locarno, where it won Best Emerging Director and Special Mention awards. It also won the Montgolfière d'or award at the Nantes Festival of the Three Continents and also has been in the Vancouver festival, where one blogger noted technical flaws in the long hillside take camerawork. Shelly Kraicer provides loving details in a piece reprined in Cinemascope. It has been hailed by French critics ("of an unheard of virtuosity," Liberation; "a splendor," Les Inrocks) and it's coming out in France 23 March. Screened for this review as part of the 2016 Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art series New Director/New Films. It will show Mon. 21 Mar. at 6:30 p.m. at MoMA and Wed. 23 Mar. at 6 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.


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