Kaili Blues: This Time Around, by Scott Nye
Like the forty-minute long take at its center, Kaili Blues has a story, but its detours and details are more immediately compelling. A family drama, ex-con narrative, travelogue, memory, and dream, Bi Gan’s debut feature is an exploration of and introduction to a part of the world he suggests has never been shown in movies, and largely ignored by art altogether. In its title city, and especially subsequent trips to neighboring towns and villages in Southeast China, he depicts a place where one’s past is trapped in the region’s dense fog that renders these urban centers as ghost towns, its half-built/half-demolished buildings built into hilly and cavernous landscapes surrounded by poorly-functioning machinery. It’s a bewildering, eye-opening, consciousness-expanding experience, uncommonly confident in its apparent curiosity.
Chen (Yongzhong Chen) is a doctor working at a small clinic in Kaili City. He’s trying to look after his nephew, Weiwei (Feiyang Luo), who’s literally stuck home most days with nothing but television to keep him company. His father – Chen’s brother, known simply as “Crazy Face” (Lixun Xie) – locks him in their house while he spends his days drinking and gambling. Their family is marred by tragedy, and he not unreasonably fears for his son’s safety while finding little purchase in his own modest ventures. And just where does Chen get off criticizing him anyway? Crazy Face looked after their dying mother while Chen was in prison, but she left the family home to the latter anyway. Chen seems to be trying to make amends – to himself, his family, and his community – but the occasional glimpses we see of his own instability are enough to suggest Crazy Face is not as simple-minded as we might first suspect. The locks on his home might have more to do with Chen than the roving gangs he blames them on.
Not that there isn’t danger in Kaili. Radio reports keep coming in about supposed “wild men”, covered in hair and emitting horrible sounds, attacking people in isolation. The viewer hoping the film will go full Boonmee and have one such creature appear may be disappointed, but the suggestion of their presence immediately situates the film in a sort of surreal state from which it hardly gestures to escape. Whatever Chen has done or will do keeps circling back around at him – here is his nephew in ten years, perhaps; here is his deceased wife; here is a new woman for him to intimidate; here is the history and vital statistics of Kaili; here is the river, the boat, the staircase connecting a road, the roadside food stand that is the only place to eat in the entire area. Here is the local band. They play pop songs. Do you like pop songs? The seamstress says she’ll go out with me if I can make time run backwards. Please give this tape and shirt to my long lost lover. He shouldn’t be hard to find.
It all makes a kind of sense. It’s easy enough to compare it to dreams for its ethereal quality or to classical music for how it revisits themes amidst a structure that cannot be explained (clocks – mostly drawn – keep recurring), but mostly it’s entirely indebted to itself, to Bi’s perception of the world. The principal cast is comprised of Bi’s family and friends. He grew up in Kaili, even training to be a miner and contribute a major economic resource in the city. The film’s sense of place within the city is that of a local’s, purposefully guiding us to its most fascinating sights and images, locking down the camera with the assurance that we’re pointed in the right direction. When Chen reaches the fictional Dangmai (Ping Liang plays the village) in search of Weiwei, Bi switches from a high-end digital camera to a GoPro-style mobile unit that he (and his relay team of camera operators) wields during the 40-minute long take. The effect is immediately disorienting, the edges of the frame stretching as the fisheye lens slightly distorts its subjects. Compared to the rather formal set-ups he had thus far employed – carefully-blocked performers, limited but purposeful lighting, and wide shots – this could seem out of place, messy, or a sacrifice of formal rigor for the purposes of flair. But this method lets Bi become more responsive, and his control of the camera is so careful and fluid, so attuned to the world around him (he previously worked as a wedding videographer), that I was too caught up in his curiosity and absorbed in the shot’s entrancing effect to be bothered with such academic concerns. Like a young Alain Resnais, he has fun with the form without abandoning the seriousness of his tone or purpose. One never loses sight of Chen’s personal tragedies, even when the director takes a logically-unmotivated boat ride with a young women we’ve only just met as she crosses a river to buy a trinket. The scene is a river with many forks that loops back around on itself. Bi follows one current. An entire VR experience could perhaps cover the rest.
Acropolis Cinema will host the Los Angeles premiere of Kaili Blues on Friday, June 3rd. Its New York run at Metrograph concludes this week. Future playdates can be found at Grasshopper Film’s website.