Sunday, September 29, 2013


Friday, September 20, 2013

On the Way to the Sea - dir. Gu Tao
An Archaeology of Architecture - dir. Xu Ruotao
Yumen - dir. J.P. Sniadecki & Xu Ruotao

Three short, artsy, independent documentaries from China shown at the Performing Garage, home of the Wooster Group, curated by a young critic named Xin Zhou in an evening entitled "Ruin Tourism." These were all documentaries in the lyrical/poetical/high art mode. Not informational documentaries, of course. Not examples of the super raw on-the-spot realism that is a significant trend in contemporary independent Chinese documentary.

The first, On the Way to the Sea, was an impressionistic montage piece by a Montreal-based Chinese-Canadian filmmaker about his hometown, which was partially destroyed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It was moving, featured some excellent contemporary academic music by Canadian composers, and was financed by various Canadian arts institutions. O, Canada!

The second, An Archaeology of Architecture, was consisted of three episodes, the first forgettably showing the artist's studio, the second exploring an abandoned medical facility specially created for SARS epidemic patients, and the third and most interesting consisting of an interview with a former prison convict. The prison convict is filmed shirtless behind plate of glass dripping with moisture. He talks about prison life and the layout of the prison in which he was held, tracing a map of the prison on the plate glass with his forefinger. A hand on the opposite side of the glass (the camera's side) follows the convict's finger with a white maker, so that a sketchy map of of the prison emerges on the glass. The nature of the staging made it unclear whether the man was still in prison. Were they filming this in a studio? Or in a prison, the plate glass being not an artistic contrivance but a security barrier in a prison interview room? It gave a sense of the inner life of the inmate. When you're confined, the rest of the world exists as a kind of mental map, sketchy but detailed. The repetition conveyed a feeling of monotony. The technique--tracing--had a certain metaphorical weight, evoking trauma, lingering wounds. The plate glass as cinema screen, cinema screen as memory screen--it captured the way that documentary, as a genre, on the one hand objectifies subjects, frames them, pens them in, holds them at a distance, but also has potential as a medium for the self-expression of subjects.

The third film, Yumen, consisted of footage of people poking around a mining ghost town in Western China. Hopper-esque landscapes filmed beautifully on color 16mm with very little dialogue. One man makes paintings in the ruins. A woman recalls when the town was still active. It was a lot of Man and Woman Alone in the Desert, at times making me think of Jorgen Leth's The Perfect Human or the Twilight Zone in which Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montogmery play soldiers from once-opposed armies walking around in the ruins of a society destroyed by war.

I am aware of ruins being a kind of trope in some contemporary Chinese art. They are impressive to look at and easy, import-laden metaphors for social and historical change, the destruction of Old China by Communism and capitalism, the decay of/melancholic nostalgia for socialism, etc. Wang Bing's magisterial West of the Tracks and Jia Zhangke's Still Life and 24 City spring to mind. Some of Ai Weiwei's sculptures using historical ceramics and wood or his Zodiac heads sculptures might also be relevant.

From the Great Wall to the the Three Gorges Dam, Chinese infrastructure is the most massive and melancholy thing in the world. No one with a camera can help from marveling at it. Even Johnnie To's recent action film Drug War was preoccupied with it. Whatever we are individually, infrastructure embodies what we are collectively. Because infrastructure is in essence about movement, only film can really capture it. Its monumentality and its impersonality are troubling. What if it is not an expression of us, but we are an expression of it.

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