Poetics and the Periphery: The Journey of Kaili Blues (Web Exclusive)
by Jiwei Xiao and Dudley Andrew
Like earlier generations of Chinese filmmakers—Chen Kaige with Yellow Earth (1985) and King of the Children (1987) and then Jia Zhangke with Xiao Wu (1997) and Platform (2000)—Bi Gan (b. 1989) is gaining traction in his country with his first two films after their remarkable recognition abroad. He made news in 2018 at Cannes with Long Day’s Journey into Night (Diqiu zuihou de yewan) whose finale, a bravura hour-long take, requires 3-D glasses. The chance to make such a richly styled experiment came after Kaili Blues (Lubian yecan, 2015), the subject of this article, had found fervent admirers.
But Bi Gan does not stand in a convenient generational line. In fact, he takes pride in being “marginal” not just to mainstream Chinese films, but also to alternative Chinese art cinema which, as he points out, till now has been fostered in Beijing, mainly at its Film Academy of which Chen and Jia are star alumni.¹ All three of these directors favored by festivals set their first works among peoples of the Chinese periphery, but Bi Gan’s films differ for having been incubated far from the hothouse of the nation’s capital. He was not particularly involved in discussions among Chinese artists and filmmakers about aesthetics. Instead, international directors, especially Andrei Tarkovsky and Hou Hsiao-hsien, motivated him. Under the influence of Stalker (1979),² Bi Gan set to work on Kaili Blues in Guizhou, his far-off hometown province in Southwest China. The film vaulted the young director into the international film festival circuit. Also set in Guizhou, his second feature, Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018), further exhibits his attraction to world literature and art. The film’s press kit quotes him saying: “During the writing process…as I went through Dante’s Divine Comedy, I came up with the idea of wandering,” and mentions the inspiration of Marc Chagall’s paintings as well as Patrick Modiano’s novels. And of course there is Hollywood—Long Day’s Journey into Night is obviously “a genre film, a thriller, and a film noir.”[See “Creating a Cinema of Dream and Memory: An Interview with Bi Gan” by Jiwei Xiao in Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3, Summer 2019]
The Cineaste interview also shows, however, that in comparison to the baroque Long Day’s Journey into Night, Kaili Blues—though originally scripted as a road film—is far more personal. Various autobiographical details are woven into it. For example, the character of the young boy Wei Wei, (nick)named after Bi Gan himself, carries some of his childhood memories. Bi Gan also confers his ardor for poetry on his protagonist, doctor Chen Sheng. In fact, few feature films so blatantly announce their poetic aspirations as does Kaili Blues. An intimate and distinctive poetic voice is replicated in Bi Gan’s camerawork and editing. This entrancing, often befuddling cinematic style seems authorized by the verses recited intermittently nine separate times off screen, opening up a stream—indeed a current—of consciousness. Poetry, the most ancient art, born of incantation and the summoning of the dream world, empowers the young filmmaker in his audacious exploration of a new cinematic expression of inner experience and spiritual life. Joining poetry to memory and dream, Bi Gan then joins both to cinema. As a result, mundane objects and experiences take on a surrealist look. Space-time does not progress linearly, since past, present, and future are inscrutable, as Buddha declares in The Diamond Sutra quoted in the film’s epigraph.
The achievement of Kaili Blues can be measured against a higher profile film from the previous year, likewise set in Guizhou, Red Amnesia by Wang Xiaoshuai. Wang, the director of Beijing Bicycle (2001) and a confederate of Jia Zhangke, was a key member of the sixth generation. His latest film, So Long, My Son, a three-hour epic chronicling a family from 1980 to today, and freighted with questions of memory and history, premiered at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival. Both Red Amnesia and Kaili Blues unearth a past buried in the mountains of China’s Southwest, but screening this pair side by side makes their aesthetic differences clear: Red Amnesia represents the moral weight of memory, whereas Kaili Blues produces an experience of memory. In Red Amnesia flashbacks and ghosts from this distant province alarm those who seem to have forgotten the past of the Cultural Revolution and are living confidently in Beijing’s new economy. The film and the audience emerge clear-eyed and steady after a disorienting excursion into the past. With all enigmas explained, the “explicative order” is restored, for even dreams and memory sequences in Red Amnesia are smoothly integrated into the legible prose of a schooled and effective visual style.³ In Kaili Blues, on the other hand, uncanny occurrences slip into the realm of the fantastic, as its mysteries are left disturbingly mysterious. Before the mysterious we all are equal, there being no psychoanalyst to read this dream film for us. If we analyze its elements and methods, it is not to master them, but to experience them anew and in another register, relishing the intricacy of the sensible as it congeals into new forms.
“The Cinema of Poetry”
A silver disco ball appears and reappears in Kaili Blues. Comprised of innumerable shimmering facets, it fascinates like a film screen, while enlivening whatever scene surrounds it with mutating colors that successively float atop and transform what one sees. Let each facet be a layer of the scene observed; Bi Gan puts his ball in play, then lets the layers it produces dance across the various surfaces and scenes that form the gossamer texture of Kaili Blues. The filmmaker relies on a panoply of precise and tested “poetic techniques” to give his film ballast.
Isn’t lyric poetry often characterized this way? Being self-contained and highly compact, poems shimmer with neologisms, imagery, and figures of speech, which like reversible mirror-windows, refract and illuminate the world from inside out. Bi Gan believes that he can reproduce poetry’s oral rhythm in his camerawork and editing so as to delve into personal pasts and the cultural unconscious. The film’s distinct musical and lyric patterns resonate with traditional Chinese lyric poetry, to which Bi Gan has said he is drawn.⁴ When brief cutaways to Chen’s past alternate with long takes in dream sequences, the director seems to be imitating the rhythmic pattern and delayed effect of psycho-aesthetic tension produced by ci, the celebrated Chinese classical verse form that employs “lines of unequal length with prescribed rhyme schemes and tonal patterns.”⁵ More generally, there is a sort of audiovisual poetry unleashed by the free association of sound and image in the recited poems, a cinematic poetry of reversals between object and subject, leaping from one sensuous category to another in the often arbitrary and illogical mode of reverie.
Has any other Chinese filmmaker so adventurously paired, contrasted, and overlaid sound and image to produce concise moments of cinematized poetry? Sometimes the words in Chen Sheng’s recited verses materialize visually as images in subsequent shots, as when the striking line “Fix the windshield wiper, bring the umbrella” returns in a more striking image of a wiper late in the film. Other spoken phrases, like “Build 42 windmills for me,” can be seen to propagate such avatars as pinwheels and electric cooling fans, in a contagion of transference that is the essence of poetry.
Poetry also gives Bi Gan “a certain freedom of editing” that accommodates ellipses and enigmatic transitions. “Dream sequences are really kind of phony,” Bi Gan has declared, “because [cinema is] too realistic…[but] I like the leaps between dream sequences and reality.”⁶ And so whenever a poem is intoned, the audio signature noticeably signals a switch in the image from perception to memory or dream.
Preceding Bi Gan by sixty years, Pier Paolo Pasolini had also turned from poetry to making films. Linking the two arts in his famous essay, “The Cinema of Poetry,” he writes of “significant images” made up of “gestures, environments, dreams, memory” that nevertheless are comprised of hard objects. Pasolini extols the way “Absolute Objectivity and Absolute Subjectivity” coexist in a medium that is fundamentally oneiric and concrete at the same time. Bi Gan isolates many significant images in close-ups or via repetition: disco ball, tape recorder, mongrel dog, batik fabric, lotus flower patterns, empty bottles, broken fans, dripping water, mirrors, clocks, trains, tunnels, and caves. All come freighted with connotations and all acquire additional significance via reappearance or insistent framing. Consider the many playfully composed shots of mirrors. An ornate kind of mirror, the disco ball first found hanging from Wei Wei’s home when Chen picks the lock to free the boy, recalls a similar object that Hou Hsiao-hsien introduced in Good Men, Good Women. Transposed to Kaili Blues, it acts like a hypnotist’s dangling pendant, immediately triggering a flashback to a similar ball his wife had rolled toward him at a dance hall years back. Chen is brought back to reality when, outside the home beside the nearby waterfall, Wei Wei says, “Uncle, I lost my ball,” drawing attention to the little ball he had been bouncing underneath the disco ball. This pair of balls (one large, the other tiny) forms a meta-rhyme with a second pair of large and small images that surrounds it, for the sequence opened on a close-up of water dripping slowly into a pail and it closes with the long shot of the waterfall.
Rhyming images populate Kaili Blues. Just after the waterfall shot, Chen takes Wei Wei to a tawdry amusement area where they mount miniature cars that circle a garden on a track. The camera remains with Wei Wei’s optical POV, swiveling from a view of his uncle in the car behind to a view of the tracks right in front of him. Without a cut, the shot wanders to the green flora and the sculpted fauna within the tiny circumference of this attraction before completing its cycle. This children’s train rhymes with the larger ones that will later take Chen through vegetation and then backwards in time even while moving forward in space.
Far more than prose, poetry combines multiple interacting elements for dense effects. A poem’s overall significance develops as attention moves amongst these elements. In Western languages poetry can signal multiple states or zones of existence, either sequentially or all at once, through the deft manipulation of verbal tense and mood. By contrast, because Chinese is an uninflected language, its poetry achieves mental mobility more often by implication, without resorting to grammatical conjugation. In this regard, Bi Gan’s style seems close to Chinese poetics for he conflates changing states of reality with quicksilver swiftness. The poet/cineaste adopts techniques whereby he can immerse himself within the consciousness of the characters being filmed, making it impossible and irrelevant to discern whose vision the image expresses.
An extraordinary early example in Kaili Blues is the superimposition of a green train that seems to run right through Wei Wei’s home, overtaking the entire image, before dissolving into the next shot, which is a zoom right into Chen’s ear canal as he sleeps. Without a cut, and as the train’s clickety-clack gives way to ethnic (Miao) reed-pipe music, the camera pulls back to Chen, eyes open but disoriented, in front of what seems a mental (and rear-projected) image of a pond. His head drops below the frame line, masking a cut underwater. Music from a TV accompanies the next shot of Chen sitting on his couch as he awakens from this dream. The newscaster announces that, after nine years, new footprints of “The Wildman” have just been discovered near Kaili City. While sound carries the subtle shifts within this sequence from present perception to oneiric and then historical moment, so too do color (bright green train, bright blue shoes) and movement (the train, the zoom).
“Reunion Is a Dark Room”
Poetry operates recursively, its temporality often figured as a moving circle or spiral rather than as the progressive line of prose. Neither the decrypted story of Kaili Blues nor the incidents that make it up are nearly so remarkable as the form by which the past persists in present memory. The journey Chen Sheng takes is so packed with reveries, reversals, and magic, that the line of the story circles back, rounding itself out. One can see the film’s exploration of a new cinematic approach to inner experience and spiritual life happening at three levels: first, in the way Chen’s past is gathered into his dream to deflect the course of the present, and in the manner he and his colleague, Old Doctor Guanglian, slip into reminiscences of their intertwined histories; second, in the self-conscious way Bi Gan uses motifs such as caverns, tunnels, and trains to evoke the connection between the liminality of dream and the plasticity of cinema; and finally, in the mysterious atmosphere of Miao culture that suffuses the entire film.
1) The Reunion(s)
Except for several brief flashbacks, the film’s first fifty minutes transpire in present tense until an old, empty train takes Chen Sheng from Kaili City to Zhenyuan, an ancient town of the Miao people and a place governed by a premodern temporality. Zhenyuan is where Monk has taken Chen’s nephew Wei Wei to live with him and also where years ago Chen’s mother had left the care of Chen to others when he was a small child. Also in Zhenyuan, long ago Guanglian and a Miao musician had fallen in love; the latter, now languishing on his deathbed, has asked her to come see him. While reluctant to meet him personally in this condition, but wanting to fulfill a promise, Guanglian asks Chen to pass on to him a batik shirt, as well as a cassette tape he had once given her.
Something happens to Chen along the way to Zhenyuan, as the film hovers for close to an hour around a mysterious village, not found on any map, which Bi Gan named Dangmai, believing that it meant “Secret Location” in the Miao language.⁷ Infused with an almost surrealist light, Dangmai is the dreamland that Chen drifts into on the train to Zhenyuan. The charming episode unrolls in a forty-one-minute take of astounding intricacy. Many of the characters and motifs glimpsed in Kaili city are reincarnated here, as if it were a parallel world in which doubles come and go. “Wei Wei” turns out to be the name of Chen’s driver in Dangmai, who takes him on a motorbike to locate Miao musicians who might know Guanglian’s old lover. Instead, the pair on the motorbike encounter a youthful rock band travelling in a pickup truck driven by a character with the same name, “Pisshead,” as the town drunk in Kaili City. Soon after, when his shirt loses a button, Chen takes it to a seamstress there in Dangmai, Yang Yang, who says she is eager to leave for Kaili to work as a tour guide. This plan distresses the driver, Wei Wei, who is fond of her and follows her around. While waiting for his button to be sewed on, Chen spots Yang Yang’s friend, a hairdresser who looks exactly like his deceased wife; he runs after her, putting on the shirt that Guanglian had entrusted to him.
In the Dangmai sequence, when Chen Sheng hands the hairdresser the cassette Guanglian intended for her past lover, Chen is regifting it in memory of his wife whom the hairdresser resembles. Far from a betrayal, this testifies to the spiritual affinity of the two doctors. Chen Sheng and Guanglian are much like mother and son, each filling the space in the other’s life that death has left empty. Though they don’t realize it, their personal tragedies coincided with the sensational, widely publicized appearance of the Wildman nine years earlier. That was when Chen had been convicted for a gang crime and when Guanglian’s son was killed in an accident, evidently by a driver who had been spooked by this creature. Indirectly, the Wildman brought Chen and Guanglian together at the clinic, which has become a memorial temple where their dedication exorcises the pain of bereavement. In a way, their meeting constituted a reunion: two lost souls, two halves of a loving relationship, become whole again.
A subtle slippage and blending of sensibilities underlies their intangible bond: reminiscences spoken by Guanglian trigger flashbacks for Chen in their casual conversations. Color and luminosity also seem to move between them. For example, the shoes of Chen’s mother that float in the pond in his dream are of the same turquois hue as a curtain printed with lotus flowers in Guanglian’s home. In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, a series of images replicate the compound word—light (guang) and lotus (lian), separate and together. Behind the blue curtain with its printed pattern of a lotus pond is a small flame that Guanglian kindles for the cupping treatment of Chen’s cold; and in the following shot, the sunlight that shines through the window from the left projects an image of the lotus pond onto a wall in Guanglian’s room. Deepening this resonance are the Buddhist connotations of her name, “light-lotus.” An extreme close-up shows the translucent bottles scintillating in blue and purple, while casting iris-colored shadows upon Chen’s naked back, his skin undulating slightly as he breathes. This fleeting moment will carry over into the long sequence in Dangmai when Chen dons the shirt he is to take to Zhenyuan. His back, momentarily naked, appears tattooed with circles from Guanglian’s suction cups.
The beauty of Kaili Blues is never skin deep. A small episode of everyday interaction like this between two human beings, involving neither kinship nor sexual relations, leads to a profound convergence of affection and spirit. Guanglian transfers her love for her dead son to Chen Sheng, while he serves to re-establish the connection between her and her former lover. By putting on the shirt that she has made for that man, Chen becomes a medium between the living and the dead. This role is reinforced when he places the hairdresser’s palm atop his flashlight, setting it aglow to produce the optical illusion of “dolphins-in-the-deep-sea,” a small magic trick that mimics what Guanglian told him her lover had done when they were a young couple feeling defenseless in the dead of winter in Zhenyuan. This correspondence is itself doubled by the poem Chen Sheng later recites at the river bank:
Pushing memories into the veins of the palm,
the light of the torch sifts through the back of my hand,
I see dolphins falling into clouds.
Guanglian’s memory of love, forever attached to the imagined warmth conjured by her lover’s flashlight trick, has slipped into Chen’s imagination and stirred his memory. In addition, the wife’s last letter to Chen in prison expressed her desire to see the ocean. The hairdresser, the woman who looks exactly like her, echoes that wish. In this zig-zag way, the high passion of love has been transferred via the low voltage of a flashlight that shines through the delicacy of skin.
2) Caverns, Water, and Trains
The doubling and transference that happen in the Dangmai section, underwritten by the logic of the unconscious, echoes Buddhist ideas of reincarnation. Extending a popular Chinese adage, “every encounter is also a reunion,” Bi Gan declares in one of Chen Sheng’s poems that “reunion is a dark room.” This dark room—this camera obscura—is evoked by caverns, tunnels, and trains, as well as by a small abandoned temple in Zhenyuan where Chen hides while spying on Wei Wei.
Dark and labyrinthine chambers of caverns have always been figures of the inner world, harboring our fears and anxieties; this is the realm of legends where creatures like “The Wildman” lurk. In shuttling among animals, people, and spirits, and leaping from one time zone to another, Bi Gan echoes Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives (2010), for its phantom beast seems to have wandered directly into Kaili Blues. And that echo reverberates from the cave of Uncle Boonmee to the caverns of Kaili Blues.
The train to Zhenyuan takes Chen through tunnels, and deposits him in front of one that he enters as if it were a cave, a primal scene of cinema. Drawn by the reed-pipe music of the Miao, he wanders into this enchanted world with walls covered by Miao drawings of musicians playing instruments like those he hears. A closer look shows these to be neither cave painting nor fresco but batik cloth design. Passing through this tunnel, the film emerges in Dangmai where the unbroken dream commences. The liminal place opening onto the other world is also a cloth, a screen.
Flowing down and within Guizhou’s cavernous mountains, water floats the film from past to present and back, always the same, yet always moving. It can come in torrents and cascades but, as we have seen in the close-up of the bucket at Wei Wei’s home, it also drips incessantly, inducing a hypnotic state. Bi Gan relies on this Tarkovsky effect (Ivan’s Childhood specifically) again in Long Day’s Journey into Night. In the most violent sequence of the generally quiescent Kaili Blues, water trickles ominously onto a rain-soaked table as all sound subsides except for that of water and of Chen’s voice, quietly reciting a brief poem. With a water-soaked table as the linchpin between two separate but spatially adjacent moments, a pan manages to span nine years of a family drama; only the characters’ shirts distinguish the distinct occasions.
With techniques like this, Kaili Blues quietly conveys its susceptible spectator along the rails of reminiscence, just as trains bear Chen Sheng into his oneiric state. Has there ever been a more sleepy Chinese protagonist than he? From the outset to the final shot, Chen often appears somnolent. Hypnotized by the rhythmic sounds and gentle jostling of the railways, he is also the sole passenger in uncannily empty carriages. But these are not your normal Chinese trains; they are both vessels in which dreams gestate and machines that produce them.
Bi Gan also softens the train’s carapace into something silky, taming the mechanical beast of heat and fire so it conveys a cool transition between the mundane and the magical. In the scene in Wei Wei’s cave home, already mentioned, the camera follows its own logic, panning past one of the film’s many electric fans, until, on a four-poster bed draped in a mosquito net, a brightly lit green train appears, traveling upside down, its rails at the top of the screen. The windows of the train cars pass in such quick succession that they look like frames of a moving filmstrip. Soon occupying the left half of the screen, then the entire frame, this ghostly superimposition grows more convincing with the increasing volume of its sound, even as the drapery, upon which the image is layered, billows like a curtain in the breeze.
Such visual fluidity and affective uncertainty make the scene as bewildering as it is compelling and prepare for the film’s culminating scene, in which two trains passing each other create a disorienting syncopation of both sound and light outside the window against which Chen sinks into sleep. One of cinema’s most durable motifs, these trains combine locomotion and animation, holding onto, and even reversing, time. “Only if you turn back time will I return,” Yang Yang had told the older Wei Wei. The latter vowed to draw clocks on train cars to forestall Yang Yang’s intended departure for Kaili.⁸ And this is just what happens. The outline of a clock, its hands turning quickly in reverse, seems to materialize atop the rapidly stuttering train windows, as if demonstrating Einstein’s confounding relativity principle. When the second train’s final car zooms by and the clattering subsides, nothing but verdant landscape remains visible beyond Chen’s sleeping profile. The film has reached its terminus. But where have we arrived? Will Chen awake in Kaili or are we still on the way to Zhenyuan? Inside cyclical time one cannot be sure. A kind of phantom train, Kaili Blues has borne us, its passengers, forward yet counterclockwise when it likes.
From the time of its invention in the age of locomotives, cinema has been capable of reversing time, as it passes through the cogwheels and tracks of a projector to animate still pictures via the quick progression of frames. A cinematized dream, Kaili Blues is thus also a dream of cinema. The cooling fans whose blades appear to rotate in reverse, the flashlight with its play of light and shadow, and the translucence of the mosquito-net are all analogues of a mechanical apparatus with powers to hypnotize and feed the imagination. Solid objects morph into a luminous sheer; their plasticity permits surfaces on screen to “become” the screen, the medium through which one is transported into the camera obscura of Kaili Blues. In fact Kaili Blues itself functions as a “medium,” in the specifically paranormal sense of that term.
3) The Return of the Native
Kaili Blues moved into the center of international art cinema partly because it follows, with a local accent, the director’s imaginative journey to his own cultural roots. Being a Miao and a Guizhou native accords Bi Gan a moral advantage as well as a distinctive point of view. He explicitly wants to avoid any return to a “cosmopolitan exotic.” “There is Miao identity in my blood, so I have an unforgettable feeling for it, and it exists in my film indistinctly. But I don’t want it to be the theme of my film, so I am always trying to avoid making my film to be a fake folkways culture thing.”⁹
Still, emblems of traditional Miao culture pervade the film, well beyond the ritualistic music heard at key moments and underscoring every dream. Batik shirts and patterns that are still produced in Guizhou from the ancient craft of wax printing can be traced to the Miao tradition that records their culture on clothing. A batik cloth registers the memory and losses of both Guanglian and Chen Sheng. Guanglian recalls that when her son died, he held in his hand a batik fabric made by Chen Sheng’s mother; it is now a memento which she vows to keep. She selects another such fabric, one printed with the patterns of her emblematic lotus flowers, from which to sew a shirt for her former lover. Batik fabrics are often strikingly blue; their designs, inspired by the forms of animals and plants, make swirls that touch other swirls to create larger patterns. In a way Kaili Blues may be termed a batik film, its indigo swirls of memories and dreams radiating from one person to many others.
In Miao culture, shamans (wu) regularly mediate between the living and the dead. Where transiting amongst states of consciousness is an accepted experience, priority need not be granted to the present. Miao shamans are doctors of a particular sort, able, like those in other cultures, to perform “spiritual healing” and “soul-calling.” When Chen, dream-drunk, leaves Kaili City and his clinic on his journey, he becomes a modern shaman, traveling between past and present, between humans and spirits. By extension, Bi Gan’s film invites its audience to traverse the membrane of the screen on the way to an immersive and spellbinding experience. Audiences must adjust their customary states of consciousness to enter fully into Kaili Blues.
This spiritual/cultural dimension is responsible, in part, for the film’s peculiarity in a country where not only is collective memory vigilantly policed and cinematic time-travel to the historical past forbidden, but also dreams and reveries are rarely put on screen. Bi Gan is subtly subversive, despite his delightful lyricism and childlike flair. The young filmmaker flicks off restrictions in the same derisive and irreverent manner with which Chen Sheng flicks the butt of a cigarette out the train window at the end of the film, sending its sparks into the dark tunnel.
Thousands of miles away from Guizhou, both authors of this article, like many who saw Kaili Blues at festivals or in art theaters in the West, have fallen under its charm, experiencing it as an extended cinematic dream. This does not mean that the film retreats from the social reality of China. Kaili Blues is sealed off neither by the private sorrow of its theme nor by the camera obscura of its form; for its lens of poetic concentration redirects light outward with singular intensity. Just as poetry is both a frontier of language and central to it, so is Guizhou—the frontier province of China—central for Bi Gan.
Crafting a film that echoes out of the caves of the Miao people, Bi Gan broadcasts another way of life, another way of making films, and another kind of “Chinese dream.”¹⁰ While Kaili Blues may allude to social and political aspects of China (dysfunctional families, health care, the environment, delinquency, prison labor, and the memory of the Cultural Revolution), it does so always in intimate terms that blend into the film’s flow of moods and hues. Governmental policies surely affect the people of this region but cannot dominate their dreams and memories, their fears and fantasies. The news we hear broadcast from Kaili is different from that coming out of Beijing, but Kaili’s news is central to those who watch or listen to it there. One reporter in the film warns of the reappearance of the Wildman, while another reporter gives airtime to a local poet, Chen Sheng, who recites in verse the credits of this very film. Kaili Blues shows itself to be, from start to finish, a poem in cinema. More than that, its poetry is the news.
Beyond Kaili Blues
When Long Day’s Journey into Night was first announced via a poster in December 2017, there was no mistaking the continuity of Bi Gan’s aesthetic undertaking. For atop an image from the film, the English title (subsequently discarded) is “Roadside Picnic,” referring once again to the literary source of Stalker. And the poster’s image itself is dominated by large globe, looking just like a disco ball. Did this image inspire Bi Gan’s backers to see his new film’s alluring light distributed around the globe?
Bi Gan is now accompanied by renowned collaborators eager to travel with him. His second feature bears the weight, then, of increased financial resources, oversight, and expectation, something that has doomed many promising auteurs. With a disco ball again materializing at the outset of Long Day’s Journey into Night, how could the film expect to recapture the freshness of its predecessor? Exuding cinephilia, many of this film’s motifs, colors, moods, and even specific shots and scenes suggest the imprint of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990), and, yet again, Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).
With a far more polished look, Long Day’s Journey into Night loops back to Kaili City, and to the themes of lost love and criminal past found in Kaili Blues. Yet, its difference of tone is pronounced. Instead of the spontaneous and open poetic style of the first film which meshes naturally with its dreamy subject, Long Day’s Journey into Night, more expensive and more “anticipated,” feels claustrophobic—with its bedeviling plot twists, character doublings or role switching, and zigzag of timelines now painstakingly filtered through genre conventions. Such an approach diverges from the poetic path of Kaili Blues. Its English title situates Long Day’s Journey into Night under the sign of the Winter Solstice, while Kaili Blues reaches the summery dreamland of Dangmai, though only after passing through tunnels. Hardly a shadow is seen in the unbroken long take for which this first film will be remembered. By contrast, the prolonged shot on which Long Day’s Journey into Night concludes, appearing even darker and more distant in 3-D, takes the camera down a zipline to explore the lower land of a past that is literally noir. Ultimately, the camera manages to spin out of the charred room of lost love; yet the film, stranded in a prolonged night(mare), remains spellbound in time like those wandering souls who, during the full hour of the final shot, pass by each other as if in a trance, without remembrance or recognition.
Where will Bi Gan’s searching camera next alight? Might it circle back to the enigmas that are bound to the malleable space-time of Guizhou? Those who have been pulled along behind Bi Gan’s captivating camera now find themselves in a state of suspension, a state that Kaili Blues has taught us to treasure.
¹ Bi Gan, interview on French DVD of Kaili Blues.
² The film’s Chinese title, Lubian yecan (Roadside Picnic), is the translated title of the novel by the Strugatsky brothers from which Tarkovsky’s Stalker derives.
³ We take the phrase “explicative order” from Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 11-13. Most teachers, including artists, aim at clarifying for students and audiences a state of affairs. But Bi Gan explains nothing; instead he experiments, as does an inquisitive schoolboy, with the enigmas that fascinate him.
⁴ See “Kaili Blues Q&A” following the film’s screening at New Directors/New Films 2016.
⁵ “Ci, Chinese Poetic Form,” Britannica online. On the French DVD, Bi Gan speaks of editing his film according to certain voiced rhythms in Song Dynasty ci poetry.
⁶ See the Cineaste interview (Vol. XLIV, No. 3, Summer 2019) and that with Michael Snyder in The Film Stage, May 20, 2016.
⁷ Bi Gan in The Film Stage, op cit.
⁸ A reversible clock had earlier been envisaged by the younger Wei Wei, using a steamer tray as his make-do stencil. His clock, doodled on the wall of his cave home, suddenly comes into animated motion.
⁹ Aaron Stewart, “Director Bi Gan talks ‘Kaili Blues,’” The Playlist, May 27, 2016.
¹⁰ In 2017, Chinese authorities ordered theaters to begin every screening with a propaganda video called “The Glory and the Dream—Our Chinese Dream” from July 1 until the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that fall.
Jiwei Xiao is an associate professor at Fairfield University. She is a scholar of modern Chinese literature and contemporary Chinese cinema. Her film essays have appeared in Film Quarterly, New Left Review, and Senses of Cinema.
Dudley Andrew teaches French film, world cinema, and aesthetics at Yale University. He is the author of What Cinema Is! Bazin's Quest and Its Charge and editor of Opening Bazin.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3