Kaili Blues Bi Gan (China 2016) Yongzhong Chen, Yue Guo, Linyan Liu
Viewed Star and Shadow film retreat Burnlaw, 16 June 2019
Ending where you start
Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues in its title seems to echo Neil Simon’s play/film, Biloxi Blues ( Mike Nichols) which I haven’t seen but which has an important autobiographical element. Perhaps there are autobiographical references in Gan’s film. Gan was born in the eponymous town of Kaili and his movie is shot there, but for all that his title may self reference, the driving concern of the film seems to be its subtextual political caste. Kaili Blues is a statement of subtle opposition to the Chinese state and its reduction of the human spirit to industrial ideological mantras.
Gan’s film begins (in the first section) with a quote from the Diamond Sutra (also the title of his first film). At the core of this ancient and oldest of Buddhist poetic tracts is the Buddha’s revelation of life as an illusion: what is seen is a series of passing moments, that can never be recaptured – only represented as fabrications. At the heart of Gan’s movie he inserts a religious realisation that radically contradicts the nineteenth century belief in objectivity that is the current Chinese credo. An objectivity that is as metaphysical as the divine right of kings, and is likewise vulnerable to being discredited.
The Chinese Communist Party legitimises itself through a number of progressive ideological belief that takes in all aspects of life, but most fundamentally defines the nature of time and also pervasively indicates the nature of the correct behaviour that should adorn the surface of life.
Grafted from the writings of Marx and embedded in the construct of formal political communism is a particular concept of time. Time is defined as a unitary linear dimension that is unfolding according to a particular historical law. There is an objective inevitability to this movement, in which subjective elements play no part. But Gan’s characters are energised by the atemporal imperatives of dream memory and instinct and his use of the camera, the nature of the shots and style of shooting, are an intrinsic formal part of the film’s perception of a different order of relationship between mankind and time.
Dreams with their mythic reverberations ineluctable messages and psychic disturbance shape and direct the movement of Gan’s characters who live outside of the accords of the passage of strict spacio-temporal dimensions. Past and future co-exist and blend in a mosaic of scattered impressions. Time and space inter-connect in Kaili Blues, a co-relationship that Gan captures and underlines with his long durational camera shots, that are constructed to collapse these two dimensions into each other, not to separate them. The journeys undertaken by the protagonist are not linear but circuitous. Every step taken leads back to the starting point, there is no progress, just a winding path that subverts expectation and is without judgement.
There is an early sequence, disassociated and dislocated in time, in which we see a huge mechanical excavator with a long shovel arm extricate itself, insect like, from the back of a low loader. Its movements are ridiculous and its choreography complex, but finally triumphant. In all its mechanicality the huge machine manoeuvres itself off the vehicle, witness in its own way, to a triumph of the spirit rather than the laws of movement. Another contradiction embedded in the scenario.
The physical surfaces against which the film is shot, the background shots, are mostly broken, mottled, discontinuous, non reflective. They are surfaces that do not appear as backdrops to the official portraits of China. The received image of China projects only onto confident modernistic surfaces. These are smooth reflective seamless unified integuments. They are surfaces in front of which and upon the which today’s China can be projected. They are perfect for the sustaining the illusion that is modern China. The backgrounds in Kaili Blues are real. In themselves they echo the nature of life itself as lived: a crazed experience.
Gan’s protagonist Chen Shen lives such a crazed life, living outside the public code of behaviour but in accord with his daemon. The lives played out in front of Keili’s scabby surface backdrops are not those as portrayed in the CCP handbook of approved attitudes and correct behaviour. Gan’s China is a transgressive zone defined by folk law, gangsters, disaffected and unproductive youth and ruthless self interest. A movie world where algorhythms, smart phones and high tech are not its defining elements; where the people live in the folds of an enduring landscape and the inconstancies of dreams.
The overall feeling emanating from Keili Blues is that of an assertion of life. A feeling for life that is stronger than the political forces that will seek to destroy and control it.