As much as we cannot tell where the film is going, we cannot tell if it is going anywhere at all, or if it even needs to be.
Kaili Blues (ND/NF Review)
Kaili Blues, which has made a quiet name for itself on the festival circuit, has described by fans and critics as dreamlike, and it truly is, in so many senses. For some, this dream is an incoherent poet, stumbling through the last few drops of whiskey in a flask. For others, it is an otherworldly calling, a dizzying sense of realisation—or what some might even call enlightenment. The line between the two is probably a fine one.
Set in the rural province of Guizhou, China, even the film’s foggy, mystical location exudes a surreal quality, as though we are floating from scene to scene, character to character. This experience is only heightened by director Gan Bi’s use of long, uncut takes, which frequently disorient our sense of time. Gan Bi himself explains his preference of long takes by describing them as “liberating” and “close to poetry.” Somewhere between the art of poetry and the motif of time is where Kaili Blues lies, driven not by a narrative but by a feeling. As much as we cannot tell where the film is going, we cannot tell if it is going anywhere at all, or if it even needs to be.
However, Kaili Blues is intermittently concerned with a more tangible journey, depicting the travels of Chen (Chen Yongzhong) from his hometown of Kaili to Zhenyuan in order to find his nephew Weiwei. Chen’s brother—Weiwei’s father—is the unreliable Crazy Face (Xie Lixun), whose character is best represented by the knowledge that he may have sold his son. On his journey, Chen stops through the town of Dangmai, where space, time and reason all become unfathomable, and the film relies solely on our emotional connection to each character as they transiently pass into and beyond the lens. It’s a bold move, but one that forces the audience to question our understanding of reality as the discernable opposite of fantasy, interweaving the two until their distinction is not only obscured, but rendered unimportant.
One of the most interesting ways Bi achieves this is through the inclusion of actual poetry, both his own and that from the Diamond Sutra, a text of ancient Buddhist teachings. Read by the protagonist as a voiceover during several shots, the poems center our experience of the film, allowing and encouraging us to speculate on various moments whilst ensuring we never stray too far into the ethereal. Indeed, these sharp, contextual poems feel somewhat necessary, as though without them we would be adrift in a sea of memories with no sense of direction.
This exploration of time and memory is also wonderfully portrayed through music—both in the film’s traditionally inspired soundtrack and within the story itself. Chen’s search for a group of men who play the Lusheng, a traditional Miao instrument, leads instead to a group of young men about to play a pop concert. It is a clear but unobnoxious signifier of the inevitable modernisation of rural China, demonstrating both visually and aurally the meeting point of two generations. Yet Bi’s construction of this encounter is critical of neither the modern nor the traditional, preferring to hang, motionless, in a chasm of time where both can exist harmoniously. This lack of any linear motion through time is almost entirely what the town of Dangmai seems to represent; it is a place where memories can happen tomorrow, and passing trains can turn clocks backwards.
Kaili Blues has thoroughly impressed many as a directorial debut, and it’s perhaps the promise of more to come from Gan Bi that truly grips our interest. One technical feat in the film has been rightly praised—a single shot that lasts over 40 minutes long, and must have required an incredible amount of choreography in order to seamlessly flow through so many scenes. It cycles through a wide variety of characters, each of whom plays a small but significant role in our gradual understanding of the film, if that ever happens. But just like a dream, understanding what has happened is a far less meaningful goal than embracing the experience: in this case, one of a delicate, pastoral trance.
Kaili Blues screens as part of New Directors/New Films in New York City. To learn more about the festival or buy tickets, visit www.newdirectors.org.