Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bi Gan's debut film "Kaili Blues" at Northwest Film Forum: Jun 23 - 26



As a forum for the vanguard in contemporary narrative cinema, the Locarno Film Festival has emerged as one of the most important Western festivals to support Asian cinema, particularly works without commercial distribution prospects. For mainland Chinese filmmakers, the affirmation and support from the global independent film industry has become more crucial in recent years. Particularly as the government under President Xi Jinping continues to carry out the broadest crackdown on free expression in the "25 Years of Amnesia" since the events that culminated in the Tiannanmen Square protests of 1989. By way of example, China’s most prominent arthouse director, "A Guy From Fenyang" by the name of Jia Zhang-ke, would not have had the global reach of a "Filmmaker Giving Voice to Acts of Rage in Today’s China", without the support of the international festival circuit. Those filmmakers are also aware that as recently as 2010, Locarno awarded the Golden Leopard, it's top prize, to an unknown Chinese director for Li Hongqi's “Winter Vacation”. Further bolstering it's role in supporting independent film from mainland China and broader Asian subcontinent, Locarno established “Bridging the Dragon", a traveling workshop aiming to foment co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films. So it is that "Chinese Independent Filmmakers Look to Locarno Festival" in growing numbers and diversity. Ranked among Film Comment's Best Undistributed Films of 2015, Bi Gan's "remarkable arthouse debut" swept up Locarno's Best New Director prize, it's screening in the festival hailed as one of the most assured directorial debuts of the decade by both Film Comment and Cinema-Scope.

Ostensibly the story of a middle aged doctor and ex-con searching for his young nephew, "Kaili Blues" offers up an increasingly dreamlike elegy for bygone Miao traditions and sweeping changes seen in the landscape of China itself. Most striking is the emphatically experimental detour in it's middle passage, as the narrative proceeds into an extended exercise in cinematic time and space. The film's opening material is elliptically edited, the thinnest gossamer of connections implied as characters come and go, with the action flowing between points and persons of interest in Chen Sheng's life. Methodically these brief encounters and dialog amass a weight and accumulate hinting details of Chen's circumstance across various scenes and settings. From an obliquely referenced prison stint, to his connection with another ex-gang member Monk (himself with a violent past and fixation on timepieces), and finally allusions to his Chen's early abandonment as a child. In doing so it takes on an increasingly oneiric quality, one in which relationships and emotions correspondence are suggested, rather than established, often via narrated readings of Chen’s poetry. Delivered through extended shots and images that are achingly melancholy, and teasingly cluttered, "Kaili Blues: A Dream without Limits" describes the subtropical province of Guizhou, a mountainous, lush region of sporadic human habitations. Intriguing associations of the narrative's emotional landscape can be found in the depicted real-world recurrences of transition and disrepair. Construction is rampant on roads and buildings, almost every vehicle or appliance is shown to be in a state of erratic acting out, breakdown or overhaul. Considering the "Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million into China’s Cities" expected to unfold over the course of the next decade, one doesn't need to extend these ideas and analogies far to conceive them applying to a country in flux, and to a people in dislocation. More than just the material livelihood of those involved is at stake, matters of the heart, home and spirit are no doubt tied up in the "Pitfalls that Abound in China’s Push From Farm to City". Journeying through this landscape, "Kaili Blues" sensibility for the subject and setting of this abstract chronicle in persons lost and a past revealed, is to quote Mark Chan's Short Take for Film Comment; "one of the rare moments in recent cinema where ostentatious screen-craft proves equal to the task of channeling a multitude of these inexpressible sorrows".

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Earshot Jazz presents Mats Gustafsson's The Thing & Mats Eilertsen Trio with Harmen Fraanje and Thomas Strønen at Poncho Hall and The Royal Room: June 22 & 28


Again like in 2014, Seattle's Earshot Jazz organization has insightfully culled from Vancouver International Jazz Festival's expansive global program of all things Jazz, including a set of trios from the cutting edge of the Scandinavian scene. It's a rare west coast opportunity to hear the purveyors of this sound, informed as much by the fifty years of European Free Jazz, as the equally kinetic influences of post-Punk, Noise Music culture and by degrees the more tempered, "Explorations of Krautrock and it's Kosmische Fringe". Johannes Rød's recent, "Free Jazz and Improvisation on Vinyl 1965-1985", published by Norwegian vanguard imprint Rune Grammofon, traces independent Free Jazz and Improv labels between 1965 and 1985, from the beginning of ESP-Disk through to the ascendant digital formats. With some 60 labels are covered in the volume, and forewords by Mats Gustafsson and label founder, Rune Kristoffersen, there are few better single introductions to this particular brand of what The Guardian's Richard Williams calls, "Norwegian Blues". The significance of the ECM label to the extended Scandinavian scene and it's embracing of Classical, Jazz, Improvisation and Experimentation, can't be overstated. Dana Jennings "ECM: Albums Know that Ears Have Eyes" for the New York Times mines the ensuing four decades following those detailed in Rød's chronicle. Another significant marker of in "The Sound of Young Norway" came in the form of ECM sister label's 150th release, The Quietus hailing the farseeing benchmark of graphic and sonic synergia that was, "Rune Grammofon: Sailing To Byzantium". At the epicenter of it's players, Nordic Council Music Prize recipient Mats Gustafsson has carved out a space central to connecting the Scandinavian scene with the larger global Improv and Out Rock cultures. Playing and collaborating in and out of the studio he's done more than hold his own in duo and large ensemble lineups with luminaries like guitar legend Derek Bailey, saxophone colossus Peter Brötzmann and extended technique and electro-acoustic pioneer, Evan Parker. Gustafsson has also found contemporaries at the bleeding edge of their respective genre zones outside of the Jazz world. Japanese polymath Otomo Yoshihide, songwriter and musique concrete composer Jim O'Rourke, and the foremost American underground rockers of the 1990s, Sonic Youth, are among their number.

Marking his 50th birthday with sets by The Thing, Rune Grammofon compatriots, Fire! and comrades in arms from the global Free Jazz scene including Ken Vandermark, Paul Lovens and Christof Kurzmann, this month Trost release a document of the incendiary celebrations as the "Peace & Fire" four disc box set. Gustafsson known for his dramatic wielding of the bass and contrabass saxophones, his command of the oversize lumbering horn, and it's lower register delivering the sort of weighty, dense notes that evoke the thunderous resonance of foghorn diaphones at sea. Scattershot with short truncated upper register phrases and showers of overtones that cut through the tide of low frequency swells. This same kind of invigorating, fiery, at times beguiling playing was heard on the occasion of his bandmate and centerpiece of the contemporary Scandinavian scene, drummer Paal Nilsen-Love. Memorable performances in both Seattle and the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in various settings over the past half-decade, including last year's hours-long explosive exhibition of Nilsen's Large Unit hosted by Earshot. Later this month Earshot brings Gustafsson with his central duo of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love to the Wayne Horvitz founded, The Royal Room in a lineup with Thomas Johansson's Cortex. The following week at Cornish Poncho Hall, another central trio of the Scandinavian scene playing in a more understated meditative vein, bassist Mats Eilertsen's eloquence and sensitivity is matched by pianist Harmen Fraanje and the soaring moodscapes of Food's percussion and electronics wing, Thomas Strønen. Their sound is a more timorous, searching affair than the sonic incursion of Gustafsson and company. Central to it's fabric are piano and bass studies in rhythm and texture that circumnavigate the orthodoxies of piano trio playing, with Strønen's drumming acting in eloquent counterpoint. The trio's recordings for the breakthrough indie Hubro label assemble what Jazzwise called "contemporary European jazz of the highest quality, in it's weave a minor galaxy of young stars”, including associates from ECM's highly regarded Tord Gustavsen Trio.
Photo credit: John Kelman