EmptyLocarno International Film Festival
LOCARNO, Switzerland -- Chinese first-time director Zhang Yuedong's mercifully brief "Mid-Afternoon Barks" ("Xia wu gou jiao"), screened in the Filmmakers of the Present competition at Locarno, is an odd tale that begins with an unnamed man arriving at an almost deserted logging camp. But he is not there to chop wood. He is a shepherd who has lost his sheep. He's tired, so he takes a room in a log cabin but before he can sleep he is ordered to help another man dig a hole in a field and put up a pole there.
A lot of holes are dug in "Mid-Afternoon Barks" and several more unnamed men are observed going from pillar to post as the director cobbles together a cryptic and not very interesting fable about how modernization creeps up without people noticing. The film is more likely to creep away without anyone noticing.
Little information is imparted about the assortment of men who wander around without direction. Occasional conversations are littered with odd references and non-sequiturs. The shepherd may have been dreaming about putting up the pole, but then again he may have been dreaming about being a shepherd. Each unhelpful scene fades to black as he strolls about the logging camp not appearing to have any goal in mind.
What that means is anybody's guess for soon the setting shifts to a busy road on the outskirts of a town where three men need a map to find directions to, well, they don't say. They end up next to a body of water where one decides he wants to fish but catches only a knotty hunk of wood.
The film turns its attention to a man selling watermelons from a horse-drawn cart who has to deal with mischievous kids, cranky customers and the heat. Next day, as you would expect, he finds someone's put up a pole on his spot.
If the onscreen happenings are singularly vague, there's a whole lot more going on off-screen as if the sound engineer were actually working on a different film, perhaps one at an adjacent location. Dogs bark, saws scream, drills grind, and every so often there's an explosion that makes characters jump or stare but the source of the noise is never shown. It's a mystery but not an enthralling one, no more than the payoff to all the posts being erected, which is not so much illuminating as dispiriting.
Director: Zhang Yuedong
Screenwriter: Gu Qian
Producer: Xiao Su
Directors of photography: Dong Jinsong, Tian Li
Production designer: Mao Yan
Music: Xiao He
Costume designer: Mei Zi
Editors: Zhang Yuedong, Yu Xiaowei.
Han Dong, Chu Chen, Gou Zi, Gu Qian, Xiao He
Running time -- 77 minutes
No MPAA rating