Twenty-six year old Chinese film-maker Bi Gan’s feature-film debut “Kaili Blues” (‘Lu bian ye can’, 2015) has won numerous film festival accolades ever since its opening at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, winning ‘Best Emerging Director Prize’. For a cinephile who gets enticed by experiencing the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakaul, Carlos Reygadas, Wim Wenders, Hsiao-hsien Hou, “Kaili Blues” is a movie he/she can’t miss. At a time, when the onslaught of big American movies had rendered majority of film-makers all over the world to weave geographically unremarkable & soulless movies, Bi Gan, with a negligible amount, has made a mesmerizing existential journey. The first time I watched this film, I was like “Did I dreamt that I watched a film about a Chinese guy who’s nearly floating on a strangely beautiful Chinese village?” It takes a very mundane story and wholly transforms into a meditative experience. What if you got caught in some other person’s unconstructed dream space (aka limbo), watching him wade through lost time and lost memory? Although my description might sound a bit pretentious, mere words fail to express the audacious and lyrical screen craft of Bi Gan.
Andrei Tarkovksy once quoted philosopher Montaigne words, “We [humans] do not move in one direction, rather do we wander back and forth” to ruminate that what we perceive as aliens are in fact our own descendants traveling back in time to visit us. French film artist Chris Marker [“Sans Soleil”] is called as an alien because his frames and camera movement has the strangely elusive characteristics. It’s as if alien has visited our Earth to closely observe human activities, transforming the mundane into divine. “Kaili Blues” has that ethereal quality. When the film plunges into its 41 minute one-take tracking shot, cruising through a lush countryside on wheels, foot, and water, director Bi Gan do seem like Tarkovsky’s ‘future human’ journeying into time immemorial. The sharp & enigmatic compositions (working with first-time cinematographer Wang Tianxing) – which look both familiar and preternatural -- are as inexpressible as the multitude of sorrows we have trapped inside ourselves. Critics have called the Bi Gan’s cinematic language as an amalgamation of realism and magical realism. The shifting perception in time and space as experienced by the central character Chen (Yongzhong Chen) diffuses both the elements of real world (like the rapid geographical & cultural transformation of the village) and that of a limbo state (like the visits made by ghosts from the past & future).
Director Bi Gan has worked at a gas station. He got a rock-buster license to be a miner. But, his stint as a wedding videographer and passion in poetry writing gave him the film-making intent. The long-wide pans, the ceremonious free movement of the camera, and the cyclical sense of time seems like a reminder of a poet approaching the cinematic language with a distinct eye. The film opens with an undisturbed movement of camera, observing the interiors of a cramped hospital room before slowly moving out onto the balcony. An old woman and a dog stand there in the balcony, brightly-lit by a fire pit. The old woman looks at the few bright lights in the distance and asks ‘is there some festival on today?’ to which the middle-aged man inside the hospital answers “It’s just another normal day”. This very first imagery passed off feeling of watching something unique (I can’t seem to express why’s that) and the moment just comes to an end without further development as a quotation from ‘Diamond Sutra’ appears on the black screen. “neither the past, the present nor the future mind can be found” says the quote, contemplating on how time cannot be understood.
There’s a semblance of a plot development in the film’s first 30 minutes (which is when the film’s title is announced on-screen). Chen has an opened a clinic in Kaili, in an old house he inherited from his mother. The sub-tropical region Kaili is riddled with dilapidated housing complexes and foggy surroundings which gives the first hint of an unconstructed dreamy habitat. Chen has sporadic conversations with his partner, an elderly woman doctor (Daqing Zhao) who at one occasion tells him the tale of her former lover. Chen has a strained relationship with his younger brother Crazy Face (Lixun Xie) and he is endlessly bothered by Crazy Face’s careless treatment of 10 year old nephew Weiwei (Feiyang Luo). Through Crazy face’ resentment for his elder brother, we gather few facts about Chen’s previous life: he once led a street life and got incarcerated after being involved in a revenge plot with a local gang leader Monk; Chen’s wife had sought divorce after his imprisonment and had passed away before his release. Chen doesn’t Weiwei to grow up in the morbid environment where he and his younger brother grew. He asks Crazy Face to allow Weiwei to live with him. But, one day Weiwei goes missing and Chen learns that his brother had sent off the boy to Zhenyuan village, in the care of a old mobster boss. When Chen decides to make the trip to picturesque mountainous village (to retrieve Weiwei), elderly doctor gives him three sentimental keepsakes (a cassette, shirt, and a photo), to be delivered to her ailing former lover. The film’s visual beauty doubles up when Chen goes off on his quest, passing through a mystical town called ‘Dangmai’.
Director Bi Gan’s interview to ‘The Playlist’ site marvelously interpreted the connection between Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979) and “Kaili Blues”. The title for a collection of poem mentioned in an earlier sequence (in a TV program) is ‘Roadside Picnic’, which was the name of Srtugatsky Brothers’ novella, on which ‘Stalker' was based. Bi Gan comments that he hated ‘Stalker’ the first time he watched it and wrote a critical essay on it during college, suddenly getting bumped by a thought “Why can’t films be like this?” In a way the Dangmai village reminds us of ‘The Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s film, an area in which the laws of space and time are invalid. The sense of seamlessness that comes along that one hell of a tracking shot is very much Tarkovsky-esque. And, unlike many of the modern one-shot marvels, the technical aspects of the camerawork don’t overshadow the enigmatic, fascinating themes of the film. In one scene, we see a man dipping his hand into a fish tank trying to catch one for his customer. The shiny fishes slip away from his hand, until one gets caught and dropped into an empty plastic tray as the camera gazes at the fish’s lifeless form. The characters in “Kaili Blues” are pretty much like the elusively gliding fishes. On one hand, Bi Gan shows some organic development of character & narrative (Chen’s redemptive journey into the past), while on the other hand there’s the inorganic developments, which gives you some palpable taste before fully vanishing in the thin air. Bi Gan doesn’t want to disperse a valid meaning or reason for those inorganic moments. They are like beautiful, little prose which has similar rhythms with no particular connection.
In one majestic sequence, a beautiful young girl named Yangyang (Guo Ye), who wants to be a tour guide in Kaili takes a short boat ride from one side of the river to the other, reciting facts about Kaili she has read in a guidebook. By the time, the camera settles on the street-side pop concert after exploring the lay of the land and observing the inner lives of many characters, we are totally immersed in this mythical underworld. ‘Dangmai’ may be the visceral representation of a man’s memories and dreams. Or it could be just rich observation of the contradictions you see in the ever-evolving, contemporary Chinese society. “Memories pushed into the veins of my hands” says Bi Gan’s voice-over poem at one point as if Chen is ‘high on memories’. Who is the woman Chen meets in the barbershop and gives the cassette, he was meant to give it to the elderly doctor’s former lover? She may be a stranger, whom Chen has found to be attractive or she may be his own deceased wife, occupying this mythical space. Who is the young guy with the bike, taking Chen through Dangmai’s honeycomb structures? He may be a good kid named 'Weiwei’ or he may be ‘the Weiwei’.
Even if you fail to interpret it as a journey into the self or lost space and time, you will be enamored by the mesmerizing exploration of the distinct Chinese culture. The actual residents of Guizhou province (called as ‘Miao’ – minority members of Chinese community) we see in the 41 minute single-shot lead a diversified life style (from traditional instrument players to young pop singers) as if the past and present lay side by side. The half-constructed buildings, the dilapidated structures, and the strong wooden buildings remain like the symbols of loss and change with respect to time. So, the lost time becomes the predominant theme in both the Chen’s journey into his soul and in his search for nephew in a distinct geographical land. The recurring visual motif of the hand-drawn clock (especially that magnificent closing shot) keeps on evoking the memories of the past. In a way, it’s understandable on why Bi Gan chooses magical realism or dreamscape for Chen’s redemptive or existential trip. Chen fears the dreams that are mixed with tragic past. At one point, he says “I'm glad this old house is going to be torn down. I always have dreams when I sleep here”. Dreams are haunting, unforgettable reminders of what he has lost. It affects Chen’s new desire to lead a mundane existence. Alongside the elegant movements of the camera, Chen faces his past trauma and feelings of nostalgia (the children pop song must be connected with some memory) to get past the pressure of lost time. Now Chen discovers the other polarizing quality of dreams: to provide solace. Look at Chen’s calm, sleeping face when time travels back with the rapid movement of the train. May be this near-hallucinatory trip could make him to have an untroubled existence.
“Kaili Blues” (110 minutes) has a breathtakingly brilliant cinematic language which uniquely expresses the painful memories of a soul. Patient cinephiles will feast on the ruminative, dreamlike visuals of the young film-maker Bi Gan. It is definitely one of the great films I’ve seen this year so far.