Strangers in a Strange Land: Perry Lam reviews ‘Kaili Blues’

This film review is part of Rochford Street Review’s coverage of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.

Cinema has been noted for its ability to transcend and manipulate time and space to fit the narrative. Tarkovsky is one of its most masterful manipulators, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar also claimed its stake with its deployment of time and space as a dramatic device. Kaili Blues, the first film by Chinese director Bi Gan, attempts to show us that time and space are precious commodities, especially for those who have nothing else.

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Kaili Blues takes place in the tropical Guizhou province in southern China, the film revolves around a doctor with a dark past, Chen and his quest to find his missing nephew Weiwei, whom was sold by his father and Chen’s brother Crazy Face, to another man living in another village. There is barely anything else to the narrative and while Chen is the protagonist, the term lightly applies to him as we spend significant amount of time with several characters, such as Chen’s elderly colleague who yearns to meet her past lover and Weiwei, who due to a surreal twist of fate, becomes a major character at the second half of the film. What the film does however, is allow you to feel Chen’s journey, both to find his nephew as well as to face up to his criminal past, through the cinematography, editing (or lack thereof) and soundtrack.

Moody but unrelenting, Kaili Blues’ most outstanding feature is its cinematography, with emphasis on cool blue hues and long, unending takes with little or no editing or cuts, audiences are on for the ride as the camera performs complex ballet set pieces through the various characters of the film as they argue, scheme and discuss over their various problems and motivations. The camera is omnipotent and time and space becomes a viewing gallery for the audience, every argument, every quiet moment of contemplation are ours to witness. Of note is the masterfully staged single take shot that last for over 30 minutes in the second half of the film, it is not just a vanity shot however, as it does come at a vital moment of the plot where all past plot details, time and space literally converge and the end product is a wholly surreal and immersive experience.

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There are issues with such a creative choices though, editing is an issue with the film however, there are scenes which feel inconsequential to the overall  narrative and seem to drag the narrative to a screeching halt. It does feel that the film left the editing room too early. The cinematography is both the film’s greatest strength and weakness, it adds to the sense of surrealism that permeates through the film and we are allowed to witness and judge the character’s lives and actions for what they are. On the flipside, several scenes drag on for too long with no clear direction, and we are never given a sense of intimacy or closeness that allows us to relate to any of the characters, we become, in a way, like Chen, strangers in a strange land.

Time and space are the strongest themes in the film and it is evident in the character’s relationships. For Chen, time and space is precious. Chen loves his nephew Weiwei, who is the only person he knows who will accept his love and Chen is willing to spend time with Weiwei, everyone he loves is gone, dead or hates him. Chen’s elderly colleague constantly reflect on her past romantic mistakes but she is too afraid to visit her dying lover who lives in another village. Weiwei is too poor to buy a watch yet it is his yearning for one that sets off the entire plot. These are just few of many examples of characters and their relation to time, which differs from character to character.

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Space takes a more constant approach for the characters, specifically, space is shrinking for them. We see gleaming apartment blocks and mammoth construction vehicles and towering cranes, a clear sign of China’s modernity invading into the obsolete villages of Guizhou, but it is always in the background space, slowly encroaching into the frame. None of the characters belong in modernity, they live in dilapidated squalors and they constantly complain about their homes having to be torn down soon, space is shrinking for them.

Our existence is justified by time and space, we travel to work in the morning, we go back home in the evening, we all live in our own space time bubbles. Kaili Blues gives us an opportunity to witness the deterioration of one such bubble, being replaced by the present.

Rating: ***1/2 out of 5

Kaili Blues is a moody tone poem that serves as a confident debut for a director. While occasionally overreaching its grasp, its flourishes more than makes up for its flaws.

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival kicks off on 15th February 2016 and takes place at venues across Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast and Perth. For further information go to http://www.cff.org.au/.

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