the past is displayed by graffiti on the walls
director Bi Gan
KAILI BLUES (Lu bian ye can) A
China (113 mi) 2015 d: Bi Gan
The Buddha said the living beings in all these world systems have many different minds which are all known to the Tathagata. Why?
Because the minds the Tathagata speaks of are not minds, but are (expediently) called minds. And why?
Because, Subhuti, neither the past, the present nor the future mind can be found.
—opening quote from the Chinese Diamond Sūtra, a central text of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the oldest dated printed book in the world, dated May 11, 868
Best film of the year so far, literally an enthralling experience, one of the few outstanding films that doesn’t really feature a developed central character, or impressive acting skills, yet demonstrates a unique ability to capture the viewer’s imagination through the sheer verve and originality of the film style. Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and Best New Director at the 2015 Taipei Golden Horse Festival, the youngest recipient of that honor at the age of 26, also the Best First Feature and Best Emerging Director at the Locarno Festival, this intensely poetic film could be described as an existential journey into the subconscious that passes through a spiritual netherworld of the past, the present, and the future, seamlessly merged into an impressionistic mosaic that may exist in an altogether mystical realm. Completely unpretentious and profoundly meditative, though some may find it slow arthouse cinema, as there’s no action to speak of, with much of it existing only in the head, where the entire film could just as easily be imagined, the director uses several members of his own family as feature characters, using exclusively nonprofessional actors except two characters that appear late in the film, Yu Shixue (the older Weiwei) and Guo Yue (Yangyang). What’s particularly intriguing is the film style resembles gritty social realism, for the most part, yet is also a ghost story, where there is a recognizable storyline throughout, yet the film moves in and out of dream and memory, darkness and light, and various modes of travel while encountering misty mountain roads, passing through extreme fog banks, where it’s easy to get lost along the way. Passages of obscure poetry are read by a narrator, written by the writer and director himself who is from the town of Kaili, yet these poems are somewhat obtuse and ungraspable, not necessarily offering insight or commentary on the images onscreen, yet remain highly atmospheric, offering suggestions of an almost omniscient state of mind that exists outside our knowledge. Like Homer’s Odyssey, there are extended travels, mostly by motorbike, often broken into mini-sections, where the handheld camera has its own inclinations, seemingly with a mind of its own, actually becoming the most prominent character, as the perspective follows the camera’s roving and constantly inquisitive eyes, where the film is not so much about the journey as the detours taken along the way.
Little effort is exerted to distinguish one character from another, where the director is not going for character development, as only the barest outline of a story exists, with details only sporadically released, if at all, often quite randomly through casual conversation, instead establishing the mood is paramount, very similar to the lush tropical eroticism depicted in Wong Kar-wai’s DAYS OF BEING WILD (1990), yet without the sexual overtones. Set in the Guizhou province, we are introduced to Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong, the director’s uncle, who was associated with the gang triads, managed a gambling house in Myanmar, and gone to prison, but now works in a factory leading an ordinary life), a doctor in a small rural clinic nestled under the mountains in the rain-drenched town of Kaili that he shares with another elderly female physician, Guanglin, (Zhao Daqing, his grandmother’s hospital roommate), who declares at the outset, “It’s just another normal day.” Stringing together a series of ordinary moments, the opening credits are read aloud by Chen Sheng while simultaneously matching Chinese script is shown on an old black and white television screen showing street scenes from Kaili in the background, acknowledging the poems in the film come from his anthology called Roadside Picnic, the identical title of a Russian science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky used in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Much like Chen has flashbacks of his dead wife Zhang Xi, the old physician dreams of a former lover from the Cultural Revolution, but hasn’t kept in contact, encouraging Chen to visit him as she’s heard he is severely ill, providing him with a shirt, an old photograph, and a musical cassette tape to offer him. Chen’s brother is something of a criminal layabout known as Crazy Face (Xie Lixun, a pigfeed salesman in real life), usually found in gambling dens or pool halls, leaving his young son Weiwei (Luo Feiyang, the director’s stepbrother) alone to fend for himself, where there’s nothing in the refrigerator and the television only has a single channel. As a result, Chen looks in on him from time to time, taking an interest that is altogether missing from his own father, even offering to adopt him, but Crazy Face warns Chen to butt out of his personal business. Mysteriously, Weiwei disappears, with Chen thinking his brother may have sold him for money. Instead, the child was sent to Dangmai to visit one of Crazy Face’s criminal friends, Monk (Yang Zhuohua), who is also a watchmaker and a collector of hundreds of watches, viewed in a remarkable, mindboggling scene with an upside-down train passing just outside their window, KAILI BLUES - Clip #1: “The Upside-Down Train” on Vimeo (1:59). Since he promised his mother on her deathbed that he would look after Weiwei, he sets out to find him, hopping on a motorbike that we see twisting through the mountain curves with the lush green foliage in the background, also riding old trains, like those seen here, The Iron Ministry (update) (2014), reminiscent of the brilliant railway scenes from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dust in the Wind (Lian lian feng chen) (1986), reflecting a timeless, stream-of-conscious imagery where it’s evident a journey has begun, KAILI BLUES TRAILER (with english subtitles) on Vimeo (1:52).
As if on cue, the title sequence appears more than 30-minutes after the film begins. Accompanied by the extraordinary music of Lim Giong, who’s been composing the music for Hou Hsiao-hsien ever since GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE (1996), which happens to be a big influence on this film, especially the punk sensibility of the gangsters, also the films of Jia Zhang-ke since THE WORLD (2004), the two artists brilliantly collaborate on producing a dreamy, intoxicating mood that features lusheng pipes, a traditional music instrument of the Miao culture, an ethnic minority (including the director) in China that happen to inhabit the town of Kaili, producing a sound Chen associates with his dead mother. While this may well be what Gaspar Noé had in mind by entering the spiritual realm of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in ENTER THE VOID (2009), or Alexander Sokurov’s ORIENTAL ELEGY (1996), this is more of a shared communion between the living and the dead, where thoughts, feelings, and memories intersect in a void of timelessness, where all happen to occur simultaneously in one’s head. On the train ride to Dangmai, Chen is the only passenger, getting lost in a dreamlike reverie where he is continually haunted by ghosts of the past, where nine years earlier he ran with the triad gangs and was imprisoned for avenging a particularly gruesome murder of triad boss Monk’s son, forced to suffer his own indignities, none greater than being locked up at the time his mother and wife died, unable to regain what time was lost. Up until this point, characters often speak of dreams, mirror reflections are seen in motorcycle rear view mirrors, storage areas resemble cavernous caves, alcohol is carried in plastic jugs, waterfalls are just off a back porch, trains flow through walls, there are constant rumors of a wild man sighting in the vicinity, repeated references to a character named Pisshead, poolhalls, hanging laundry, foggy roadways, recurring images of a disco ball, while mechanical equipment always seems to break down. Suddenly the film turns and focuses on two entirely different characters, Yangyang, an attractive girl who works as a seamstress with aspirations to be a Kaili travel guide, followed incessantly by an older Weiwei on his motorbike (constantly breaking down), who obviously has a major crush on her, and seems to be a more grown up version of the child previously seen. Yet there is Chen not showing any familiar recognition riding on the back of his bike searching for Miao musicians who can play the lusheng. This is the beginning of a miraculous 41-minute unbroken shot that is the centerpiece of the film, incredibly shot by cinematographer Wang Tianxing, including 360-degree pans, following winding roads, multi-leveled streets and pathways, moving down alleyways, where the past is displayed by graffiti on the walls, climbing stairs, peeking into the open space of tiny shops, listening in on conversations, crossing rivers and walkways, moving back and forth between characters before finally discovering musicians playing a street concert, a virtuoso existential experience completely altering the viewer’s perspective.
The hand lit up by fate
Erects forty-two windmills for me
The steady flow of nature
The universe stems from balance
The nearby planets stem from echoes
Swamps stem from the sleeplessness of the land
Wrinkles stem from the sea
Ice stems from wine.
The emergency light on the staircase of time
Seeps into the gaps in the stones where I write my poems.
There is bound to be one who will return
To fill an empty bamboo basket with love.
There is bound to be a crumbling of clay
As the valley unfolds like an opening fist.
Easily the most startling juxtaposition of the entire film comes when Chen hitches a ride into the town of Zhenyuan on the back of a pick-up truck of young Miao musicians who only play pop music. Passing through a narrow road of pedestrians on roadways and buildings under construction, it’s clear at this point that something startling is happening with the single shot, yet the intense social realism expressed throughout is completely broken by the playing of a children’s song called “Little Jasmine,” a popular Taiwanese song of the late 1970’s, aka Xiao Moli ( 小 茉莉 ), or Small Jasmine, Une des chansons de Kaili Blues (merci Panda Ly) - Facebook (2:42), reminiscent of the train sequence over water in Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY (2001), especially in its ability to transport viewers into a uniquely different dimension, like a parallel universe or an alternate spiritual plane. Incredibly, while waiting for Yangyang to mend a shirt that had lost buttons on route, Chen discovers a hairdresser named Zhang Xi who looks exactly like his dead wife. Unable to wait, he grabs the shirt Guanglin offered for her long-lost friend, chasing after Zhang Xi, getting a haircut, telling her the sad story of his life, while Yangyang teasingly ignores her admirer, takes a boat across the river, practicing her tour guide speech along the way, with Weiwei offscreen helping her with forgotten lines, as he has it memorized, always following her from a distance, crossing a suspension bridge and down several pathways until she finally agrees to walk with him, all heading for the street concert of the young musicians seen earlier, who can be heard, but just barely audible throughout much of this extended journey, growing louder as they move closer. Yangyang, Weiwei, Zhang Xi, and Chen all find themselves together on the street listening to the band. Perhaps out of sorrow for what he’s lost, Chen sings a horribly out of key version of “Little Jasmine,” which he learned in prison to sing to Zhang Xi, discovering this one is already married, offering her the musical cassette he’s been carrying. Driving Chen to a river ferry that will take him to the Zhenyuan Hotel, Weiwei offers a mystical story about wild men and altering time, with Chen only then learning his name is Weiwei, a moment where Chen appears to have aged considerably, concluding the lengthy shot with the remark, “It’s like being in a dream.” Finally meeting up with Monk the watchmaker, Chen intends to collect Weiwei, but the old gangster has grown fond of him, wishing to keep him for just a few more days, as the child has blended in complete harmony with the rest of the kids in the countryside, exhibiting a playful spirit, where Chen can only stare at him across a distance, realizing that perhaps his nephew is completely happy. Featuring an extraordinary sound design and exceptional music, where in the second half, perhaps turning the clock backwards or ahead, character names become mirror images of previous characters, not so much a futuristic shift in time as an example of how minds merge memory from the past into the present with little distinguishing difference, where both may appear in the same thought, capable of evoking powerful emotions. By the time that Chen reaches his partner’s friend, all he has left to offer is the old photograph, discovering too late that he has already died. Part of the strongest feeling throughout is that of regret, where the film recreates a multitude of inexpressible sorrows, perhaps best expressed near the end by a funeral procession of aging and nearly forgotten Miao musicians paying tribute to the man in the photograph, their honored teacher.
All twists and turns are concealed in dense flocks of birds
The sky and seas cannot see them
But with dreams they become visible
Moments where all has gone topsy-turvy.
All memories are concealed in similar days
The spiders of my heart try to emulate the way humans decorate their homes
Even nomads with instruments cannot express
How close such gazes are to those of our ancestors
How close they are to the starlit sky.
Another 70’s Taiwanese pop song, “Farewell,” composed by Li Tai-hsiang, an indigenous member of the Amis Taiwanese aboriginal community, is sung over the closing credits, 唐曉詩 & 李泰祥 - 告別 / Farewell (by Hsiao-Shih Tang & Tai-Hsiang Lee) YouTube (5:27), suggesting, among other things, that despite all the artistic accolades, the film is making a very visible and concerted effort to support Chinese ethnic minorities. Considering the history of social justice in China, or lack thereof, all one can say is Bravo, as this is truly conscious-raising material.
The film may be seen in its entirety here: 路边野餐Kaili Blues HD720p 完整版高清完美音轨- YouTube (1:49:57).