Kaili Blues, the first feature film by director Bi Gan set in the southern Chinese province of Guizhou, offers a vivid and dreamlike meditation.
It begins with the text of the Diamond Sutra, a central sutra for Mahayana Buddhists, emphasizing non-attachment and the world as illusion. This sutra especially empowers the persistent interrogation of human laws, and perceptions of reality. The plot follows a doctor at a small clinic, as he navigates the relationship with his brother and nephew, and the persistence of loss surrounding parents.
Wednesday, April 13, 9:15 pm
Director: Bi Gan
Producer: Wang Zijan, Shan Zoulong, Li Zhaoyu
Writers: Bi Gan
Cinematographer: Wang Tianxing
Editor: Qin Yanan
Music: Lim Giong
Cast: Chen Yongzhong, Zhao Daqing, Luo Feiyang, Xie Lixun, Zeng Shuai, Qin Guangqian, Yu Shixue, Guo Yue, Liu Linyang, Yang Zuohua
The film trends towards image poem: twinkling nightscapes, motorbike passages, an apartment beside a waterfall, and a generally pervasive tropical green. The director introduces a thematic framing device for the imagery in a piece of traditional Batik cloth. Batik is a wax-resistant textile; melted wax is applied to a cloth, the wax cools, the cloth is boiled in dye, and the wax is removed, leaving white against the colors.
In the narrative, the doctor’s aging colleague bought a Batik to memorialize a dead loved one, but she never burnt it as an offering, so in the end she ends up asking the doctor to take the Batik when he visits a neighboring city, to honor a long lost friend. As the camera pans over the Batik, we see deep green mountains, and figures with traditional pipes from the region. In this region, and in the film there is a constant cultural interplay between the tradition of the Han Chinese and the Miao ethnic group, to which the Hmong belong. So as the film draws an aesthetic framing from this piece of fabric, we see the doctor drive on a motorbike through misty mountains, and landscapes saturated in mist and jungle green. The shots are expansive and moody.
As the title suggests, Bi Gan employs traditional noir tropes as well in this contemplation. The doctor’s brother runs a pool hall and has trouble paying his gambling debts. Former gangsters lop off hands, and there are certain breadcrumbs of mystery surrounding phantom limbs and imagined wristwatches.
But the film definitively returns to the Diamond Sutra. Bi Gan dissembles the tropes as soon as they emerge. The Batik frames a mood, a vision, but this is just one vision.
The film is rich in poetic juxtapositions; this is the surrealist image in the vein of Lautreamont’s, “intersection of an umbrella and an operating table,” or Ginsberg’s “Hydrogen Jukebox.” These juxtapositions emerge in the historical tradition of the zen koan, the de-automatizing kick to the head, reminding us again, this too is illusion. The doctor plays self-motivating tapes around sobriety that unravel in beautiful fragments, “Ice stems from wine/ the emergency light on the staircase of time seeps into the gaps in the stones where I write my poems.” We see beautiful juxtapositions in the everyday and the otherworldly: a band plays a faltering rock song at dusk, “Little Jasmine,” a beautiful girl in a bright yellow dress sits on a motorbike with a pinwheel, there’s a back with purple bruises from acupuncture cups, a pond died blue from mercury, a flopping carp in a blue crate, a Miao pipe band in the weeds, a wrist watch that moves backwards.
Gan Bi also describes some of the region’s fascinating folklore, bringing up wild men that hide out along the river, traditions of mourning, and the role of spirits in the mountain. These emerge alongside the noir, the Batik imagery, and the Han traditions in his cascading interrogations of values systems.
In the middle of Kaili Blues there’s a long-take rippling with bravura. It’s absolutely a technical achievement, but this scene also represents a cunning sliding across cinematic traditions. As the action plays out over the course of a single camera shot, we witness something dissembling, because the narrative advances, and doesn’t, it’s high drama in the tradition of anti-climax. This is not the long-take of Chantal Akerman or Michael Snow. It’s not repetition. A lot happens. The “plot” advances. And in the style of Miklós Jancsó, the scene is rigidly choreographed, simply uninterrupted. In the end, the action presents an analysis of different modes of discourse. Human law, symbolic order, cinema tradition, folklore, noir, and aesthetic continuity become places of interrogation.
In his sliding across modes, cinematic interrogation, Bi Gan never abandons the appearance of story and plot, but it’s clear that plot isn’t really the point of the exercise. There are dream sequences. Kaili Blues is most at home in the liminal, in-between parts of language, image, and historical culture, and the constant identification and appraisal of these codes. It’s a beautiful and perfect dispatch from a site of ongoing meditation.