The haunted silence of mountains, valleys, rivers and villages has always fascinated filmmakers, who represent that silence in terms of visual reverberations. Journeying into the past and searching for oneself are other aspects of such visual odysseys. When these contemplative themes are joined together, it makes for an extraordinary work of art. This is absolutely true of the Chinese film Kaili Blues, written and directed by the young Bi Gan.
With a very simple storyline, the director embarks on a narrative which is purely cinematic and illusory. In Kaili, a quiet subtropical province of Guizhou, two doctors named Zhao Daging and Chen Shang practice together and lead uneventful lives. Chen has a brother nicknamed Crazy Face whom he is not on good terms with. Crazy Face complains that Chen is in possession of the house inherited from their mother. Chen is concerned with his only nephew Weiwei, and longs to fulfil the promise he made to his mother to look after the boy; he worries that Crazy Face might sell Weiwei. One day the boy goes missing, and Chen becomes suspicious. He sets off on a long journey to Zhenyuan to look for his nephew, carrying a few mementos which his colleague Zhao has entrusted him to bring to her former lover Airen. Airen has been ill, and communicated a wish through his son to see Zhao again. Chen makes a quick stopover in the village of Dang Mai. He then completes his journey by finding his nephew and meeting Airen’s son, only to discover that Airen has passed away.
There is a quote from the Diamond Sutra which encapsulates the essence of this film. Buddha says that “neither the past, the present nor the future mind can be found.” Chen eventually goes through this same mystic experience. His relationship with the world is discernible in two forms: his interaction with his immediate contacts (Zhao, Crazy Face, Weiwei) and with the casual acquaintances he meets on the way to Zhenyuan. The former seem routine and unexciting. Chen also has a bitter past – he did a long stint in jail for defending a bereaved gangster from unruly thugs. While he was in jail, his wife Zhang Xi passed away. She makes a subtle appearance in his memories at times, but with little emotional impact.
When Chen stops in Dang Mai, he finds everything in this town is mysterious and inexplicable: the place, people, shops, river, boat, oarsmen, the rock band and the hanging bridge. Dang Mai changes Chen’s perceptions of time. It seems that the Diamond Sutra has cast a spell on his journey – his past, present and future become woven together in one fabric. As if in a trance, he visits a hairdresser, listens to the band, and offers to sing the song “Little Jasmine” with the band. There is no explanation for his odd behavior here. His state of mind is expressed through the movements of a handheld camera. The strange thing is that sometimes the camera leaves Chen for a short time, following other characters who have no direct connection with him. For instance, it follows the hairdresser as she hangs out her wet clothes before she returns to join Chen.
The most interesting camera movements occur in the scenes with the aspiring young guide Yang yang, whom a motorbike boy has a crush on. Yang yang keeps the boy at a distance, remaining aloof yet secretly tempting him to follow her. The camera makes a circuitous journey with Yang yang when she wishes to go to the other side of the river. The boy offers to take her by bike, but she prefers to go by ferry. As the boat moves, she tries to recite the geography of Kaili the way a guide would explain it to tourists. When she forgets a line, the boatman prompts her, suggesting that this is her regular routine. Idling in the boat, she returns to meet her lover and this time she agrees to walk with him. The magic of the river cruise brings the lovers together, and when the motorbike boy leaves to transport Chen, she offers him a talisman to express her feelings to him.
Unexpectedly, Chen tells stories about his friend, his wife and the jail at the hair salon. For him, time flows backwards and forwards when in Dang Mai. The place has a mystical effect on him, and his conversation becomes easier to understand. When he reaches Zhenyuan, he meets his nephew’s protector, learning that Weiwei is in safe hands. He doesn’t want to interfere with his current life and returns without seeing him.
The repetition of motifs, such as the train, tunnels and clocks, add visual depth to the film. The train may symbolize Chen’s travel towards the future, while the tunnels represent his past journey and the clock his obsession with time. Extremely long takes characterize the style of this filmmaker. This gives the viewer a slow, magical sense of time, in which the void is filled with contemplative poetry.
The title of the film is significant, in that blues refer to a genre of melancholy music originated by African-Americans, as a well as a general feeling of sadness or depression. Kaili Blues draws on both these meanings.
The film has a non-linear narrative, which gives it the charm of dreams and memories. Life at Kaili is static, but in Dang Mai it is always flowing. Yet there is an imaginative thread which connects both places. Chen Shang’s association with Zhenyuan culminates in a poetic sequence where Miao men play lusheng pipes in memory of the late Airen, who was a master player of the instrument. The radiant sounds of the lusheng pipes echo through the silent mountains.
Real film enthusiasts look for visual experiences at the cinema, rather than expecting to follow a linear pattern of storytelling. Movies should provide food for thought, an aesthetic quest, and an unparalleled level of visual exposition. Kaili possesses all these attributes.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2015