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".