Thursday, March 14, 2019

Bi Gan's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" & Jia Zhang-ke's "Ash is Purest White" at SIFF Cinema: Apr 5 - 7 & 11 - 18



In his year end overview, The New Yorker's Richard Brody tackles the single most significant factor in the contemporary landscape of moving pictures; “2018 has been a banner year for movies, but you’d never know it from a trip to a local multiplex, or from a glimpse at the Oscarizables. The gap between what’s good and what’s widely available in theatres - between the cinema of resistance and the cinema of consensus - is wider than ever." For evidence supporting Brody's assertion, look no further than this past year's selection on offer at Cannes and Venice, and contrast these with domestic cinema programming over the ensuing year. The two pieces of new Asian cinema belatedly screening at SIFF Cinema this next month are perfectly illustrative of the depth of this divide. Each ranked highly in Film Comment, The Guardian, Cinema-Scope, and the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound annual overviews for 2018, yet only now arriving on domestic screens.

Elsewhere in the world, 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. China under President Xi Jinping continues to carry out the broadest crackdown on free expression in the "30 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" in growing numbers and diversity.

Ranking among Film Comment's Best Undistributed Films of 2015, Bi Gan's remarkable arthouse debut swept up Locarno's Best New Director prize, and was 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 the sweeping changes seen throughout the landscape of mainland China. Most striking is the emphatically experimental detour in it's middle passage into a "Dreamy Trek With Otherworldly Beauty", as the narrative proceeds into an extended exercise in cinematic time and space. 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. 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 the "Pitfalls that Abound in China’s Push From Farm to City" far to conceive them applying to a country in flux, and to a people in dislocation. The film's sensibility for the subject, and setting of this abstract chronicle of persons lost and a past revealed, is best expressed in 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".



Bi Gan returned in 2018 with a sophomore leap into neo-noir centering around the fading embers of a mysterious romance told in the key of early Wong Kar-Wai. In this dream of a movie, much of it told through almost omnipresent voiceover, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" centers around the return of Luo Hongwu to his hometown (again) in Guizhou province, to find the woman he’s loved and never forgotten. This most noirish of storytelling devices circles around a set of recurring concepts, whether journeys, romantic encounters, the abstraction of recollection, time, (or during one startling technical sequence) cinema itself, all expressed with the same half-remembered quality. Mention should be made of the strength of the film's independent components. Particularly Liu Qiang’s set design and the ethereal electro-acoustic score supplied Lim Giong and Point Hsu. Most significantly, during the film's initial sequence the sensuous and atmospheric cinematography of Yao Hung-I and Dong Jinsong, setting the tone for the extended set piece that culminates this highly stylized and oneiric cinematic voyage, whereafter "Long Day’s Journey Into Night Follows its Own Woozy Dream Logic".

The seconds notable film is the newest by the previously mentioned sixth generation Chinese director at the spearhead of mainland cinema for over two decades now. In dedicating one of their Great Directors features to Jia Zhang-ke, Senses of Cinema predicated the recognition that would later come for the quietly controversial, deeply humanistic vision alive in his body of work. Zhang-ke's earliest acclaim originating from his string of first features, "The Pickpocket", "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures" spanning the years 1998-2002. It was his examination of Globalization and China's absorption of western market and consumer values in 2004's "The World" that he gained attention outside the European cinema festivals. Becoming in a short succession of years a internationally recognized filmmaking voice that strode a very precarious balance with China's censorship and state-run cinema funding. So that much more startling then, that when his next film set within the otherworldly landscape of the Three Gorges Damn Project. A film of lives changed, homes lost and cultural legacy literally washed away, 2006's masterwork "Still Life" not only winning him top prize at the Berlin and Venice Film Festivals, but paradoxically earning praise from China's then vice-President, Xi Jinping.

With Jia's own perspective on the current state of his country offered in the pages of The Guardian, "China Must End Silence on Injustice, Warns Film Director Jia Zhang-ke" on the subjects of growing wealth inequality, worker exploitation and eroding social cohesion. That year saw him blending of his usual documentary aptitude with a newfound flare for bloodletting. His "A Touch of Sin" can be seen as the director's response to the growing backlash of mass protest, worker suicides, public violence, labor riots, upheaval against for-profit land seizures and the growing extremity of corruption of state and local officials. Jia's depiction of the rising occurrence of mainland China's explosive public response to social injustice explored in Tony Rayns' "A Touch of Sin: New China’s Loss of Social Cohesion Leads to Violence". In the long arc of Jia Zhang-ke's increasingly expansive art, he has constructed a body of observations on globalism, largely comprised of a mildly surreal tangent of social realism, with an unexpected recent turn into the realm of politically conscious crime drama. As Peter Bradshaw's review details, "Ash is Purest White" falls into the classification of the latter. Setting this tale of how "Love Smolders and Crime Pays in a Changing China" apart, Zhang-ke has imbued his crime tale with what Bradshaw describes as a "miasma of visionary strangeness", giving a distinct glow to the film's social realist grit. Seen through the film's eerily futurist sheen, this complex romantic tragedy set within China’s crime classes is a "Chinese Gangster’s Girlfriend Saga that Burns Bright".