See You in Dreamland
by K. Austin Collins

Kaili Blues
Dir. Bi Gan, China, Grasshopper Films

Early in Kaili Blues, the debut feature of the young Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan, two brothers have a deceptively small disagreement. Chen Shen (Yongzhong Chen) is a medical clinician who, with the help of an older doctor, runs a small family practice in a foggy city in southern China. He lives near his sibling, an aloof gambler named Crazy Face (Lixun Xie)—near enough to have his own key to Crazy Face’s place and to visit regularly. One afternoon he finds, to his frustration, that the lock on his brother’s front door has been changed. “Too many robbers about,” his brother says.

Sounds reasonable enough. By this point, Bi has already given us the sense that Kaili, where the first half of the film is set, is a hazy, strange, melancholic city. The “blues” referred to in the title—the industrial despair, the feral dogs, the ceaseless wet, the blanched anonymity of every built surface—is apparent from the opening shot, a slow pan that, spinning on an axis, tours the muddied, grey walls of a room in Chen’s clinic. The opening shot is our first encounter with Chen, and it seems to sum up his and everyone else’s lives with detached but rich observation. The texture and pace of the shot are what tell us the most: petty crime, or worse, would prove unsurprising here, but Bi, we realize, will approach this reality with patience and curiosity, drawing it out slowly to match the elusive inner multitudes of Chen and the people around him and evoking the slow rhythms of this mystifying place, while he’s at it.

We don’t yet know all that we don’t know, in other words—this is a film that proceeds on its own terms, punctuated with daydreams, memories and long interludes in which we hear poetry written by the director. It’s only after we’ve spent some time immersed in the film, dwelling in the slow drift of its images, that we realize there is only one robber Crazy Face is protecting himself against: his own brother, Chen. We’ll eventually learn of Chen’s past as a gang member: the violent crime, his nine-year stint in prison, the fates of his mother and wife as they waited for his release. We’ll get a lesson on cyclical violence and the constant undercurrents of guilt and anger that mark men’s lives afterward, Chen’s chief among them.

We’ll learn all of this after Wei Wei, Crazy Face’s son, disappears, and Chen ventures out to find him, setting the film into motion on a wandering, indirect trip that is, of course, really an exploration of the troubled man’s spirit. The film’s premise is that Chen undertakes a journey from Kaili to Zhenyuan to try to find Wei Wei, but in truth, Kaili Blues is about what its title names: everything surrounding this journey, the social and geographic implications that figure as strongly in Chen’s psyche as his personal experiences. The film’s joint subjects are the pervasive discontent of a rural China losing its long fight against an impending modernity and, caught in that web, one such modern man, a man who, like seemingly everyone else in this film, is trying to take stock of himself in the wake of a history of loss.

Loss seems to define life in the Guizhou Province, home to both Kaili and Zhenyuan. Seemingly every other conversation Chen has in the film, whether he’s getting his hair cut or catching a ride from a friend, makes reference not only to people he and others have lost but also to the process of mourning, the rituals of it, burning fireworks and paper money, for example. These rituals are continually threatened by government bans, dredging up one of the film’s central conflicts, between old and new, and making it apparent where, elsewhere, that fight provides subtext. It is always there, however. Bi occasionally interrupts the plot with ambiguous shots of smoke emerging out of fecund greens at the city’s outskirts, simultaneously suggesting some firework spectacle performed in mourning and, by contrast, the spurts of the pollutive industry that threaten to overtake those pockets of nature—or both, one and then the other. The implication, either way, is that these things are linked.

In interviews, Bi has suggested that Kaili is a place previously undocumented by cinema, a nowhere-everywhere, remarkable in its singularity but unremarked upon by art and left behind by history. The city is best known as a cultural hub for the Miao ethnic minority. What’s remained of the Miao’s ancient history and custom passed, as Bi has said, through song and dance and other rituals, is being blanched out by modernization. Part of what Kaili Blues traces is precisely that transition—the Kaili we see feels fixed in place, somehow, suspended in the agar of both time and image, as alive as not, as despairing as not.

You get the feeling Kaili is at a crossroads of not only modernity and custom but also industry and nature, with cement caverns and tenements sculpted into the sides and innards of lush, green hills and talk of old rituals and local lore, however mournful or unsettling, striking life into the film’s dark interiors. As if to reflect this, or perhaps because of it, an uneasy imbalance between dream and reality pervades the film. There’s a home seen in the film that’s bordered by an apparent waterfall, possibly manmade; but for its appearance amongst so many shots detailing the city’s abundant rubble, the image of the falls could be seen as beautiful, blandly photogenic, suitable for a catalogue or travel-guide. As is, the image has an uncanny instability. It is seemingly real, believably not, difficult to classify after the fact, as if it were something remembered from a dream.

It’s likely that the look of the film, which is tailored to find the beauty in the region’s natural gloom (cinematographer Tianxing Wang makes an impressive debut here), accounts for that uncertainty. Guizhou is a subtropical pocket of the southwest that’s distinctly poor and, as Bi’s camera documents, sticky-slick with humidity and wet. It’s fair to wonder how much the resulting atmosphere factors into what is already being codified, in descriptions of the film, into an insistence on its immersive dreaminess. It is true that the camera seems to wander, fixating spontaneously on objects as it slowly pans or travels, much in the way the film’s hero floats between a series of overarching obsessions—a dead mother and the house she left him, a dead wife, a lost nephew, his own inner turmoil.

And yet the film goes out of its way to disrupt that dreaminess, too. There’s a 40-minute tracking shot midway through the film, a long side-journey throughout a small town on the way to Zhenyuan. It is a strange leg of the trip—ghostly, even, if you believe that a woman who reminds Chen of his dead wife might actually be his wife, or that a man named Wei Wei might actually be, by virtue of some mystical bend in time, the living future of his lost nephew. The film lulls you into believing so with a roving camera that, like the characters, travels by motorbike and by boat, goes up and down stairs, up and down streets and alleys. As a feat of choreography, it is an immense achievement.

But Bi’s talent for individual images, his knack for striking precise compositions that still seem felicitous and surprising, is possibly undermined, here. In this long scene, what stands out is the feat itself—not what it offers our experience. As images go, this one is unappealingly banal, unable to distill this rich environment into the level of texture and suggestion that defined the film to this point. What before came off as dreamy wandering here comes off as watching actors take circuitous paths to their marks. It’s a little bit of a let down. Viewers will remember it more for its heightened sense of artifice, for the strange smoothness of the camera’s transitions on and off vehicles and into and out of various spaces, in part because of the labor this implies and the way it makes us think of those unseen members of the crew who had to pull this off.

It could be that the shot is here to remind us not only that we’re watching a film but also that the camera itself is an object, one with its own size and heft, its own fraught place, as a tool of the encroaching modernity, amongst so much rubble. In that case, the shot is onto something; that something so impressive should feel regrettable, like a great risk that doesn’t quite pay off or that doesn’t do the film’s worthy ideas justice, is proof of what Bi has accomplished, by and large. Kaili Blues is good enough that this lapse almost doesn’t register, so dreamy that you wonder whether it even happened, just as you wonder whether Kaili is a place that actually exists. It does, of course. It exists in the image.