Off Takes (Zheng Pian Zhi Wai), the title of the film by Hao Jingban, can be read as “frames not included in the film”. The film tells about filming that did not take place for various reasons, about stories, whose plots did not go the way the author wanted, about home-videos made without any aesthetical goals but strangely attracting attention.
One of the chapters narrates about a famous dancer, who interrupted her career for some time due to the political events in China in the 1960s. Another chapter, made a bit earlier and on request, is about an anniversary of her friend, also a star of ballroom dance, who shone in the 1950s. Her 80 th birthday is shot in addition in order to get closer to the heroine. Between these two chapters there are semi-amateur frames on VHS, shot in the 1990s, lessons of ballroom dancing, or, on the contrary, professional training sessions of participants of local competitions, rehearsals, and parts of TV shows, whose mise-en- scenes remind of the Hollywood musicals of Stanley Donen.
Watching these quite anonymous videos again, the narrator’s voice wonders about the strange effect of clarity and closeness at once. The question is: what in these frames, so natural and familiar for the director – himself born in the 1980s – catches us strongly: People? Costumes? Camera movements? Everything together or everything separately? The dance itself, chosen as a topic, is no more than a medium here. In its place any other art form could be imagined, which is conventional enough and faithful to rituals. In these pas, which are always similar, in these unchangeable movements of dancers, time leaves its traces, which could be decoded if required. However, this very process of decoding or, more exactly, of translation, is itself very circumstantial. One image is opened by another, meanings are voluntarily stolen from the past or, on the contrary, from the present. The film reflects on its own incapability to pull the sense out of the past. However, it is not only a question of time (which is attractive, as the texture of a worn film with its scars and overexposures is itself incredibly photogenic), but also of contemporary images.
Thus, additional shots of the banquet don’t go very well. The cameraman is bored and the camera attempts to turn away from the ladies wearing diamonds, having caught a man in a military garrison cap and a woman in a glowing pink dress, who are awkwardly dancing to 70’s retro music. The obtrusiveness of their movements will remind the director of dances in Tsai Ming-Liang’s films, where reality is presented as naturally dislocated, as if surrealistic. Later, on another occasion, Hao Jingban will recall Chris Marker (in whose film there was an athlete who became an executioner of Pinochet afterwards) and Edward Yang. Each fragment is set as a series of reflections, one image addresses another image, turning the viewer to perpetual confusion. We are pushed into the past or the future, skipping the present, whose core cannot be grasped.
Essentially, this film-labyrinth is at once political – as it tells us about things we could read if we were hermeneuts of time – and pessimistic, because in reality we are almost never capable of this. And perhaps, the author is partly right, having chosen the phrase “There are no banal images, only incompetent viewers” as epigraph.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2017