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A sometimes transfixing art film about a doctor trying to make up for past crimes by caring for a neglected nephew in rural China, Gan Bi’s Kaili Blues is nowhere near as plot-driven as that perhaps misleading synopsis suggests. Dreamy, poetry-filled and prone to veering off on tangents, the picture teases viewers with such self-assurance it’s difficult to believe the twentysomething director is a first-timer.
One also marvels that d.p. Tianxing Wang is making his debut here, as the film’s arresting photography, which guarantees our attention before the script and performances have secured it, offers shot after shot in which small delights fit tidily within the director’s storytelling needs (such as they are). Bi’s story, more of a sketch than it might sound, follows Chen (Yongzhong Chen), an ex-con now living an upstanding life, as he quarrels calmly with his brother (amusingly called Crazy Face) over the fate of his nephew Weiwei (Feiyang Luo).
This effort, which dovetails nicely with a mission Chen undertakes for an elderly co-worker, requires a road trip into villages in the mountains near Kaili. And here, in the film’s second half, Bi and Wang execute an audacious traveling shot that lasts over 40 minutes, covering several miles as it tracks characters on motorbikes, down pedestrian streets and in a single-motor wooden boat across a river. (At one point, the camera takes a short cut down a narrow pathway between buildings, catching up to a scooter that had to take the long way around. Elsewhere, it peels off to follow a supporting player while Chen gets a haircut, returning just in time for the barber to finish him up.) The choreography here, involving what appears to be most of the village’s residents, is intricate and impressive. It was clearly such an undertaking that one hesitates to complain about the occasional jankiness of the image, as if a zoom lens were wobbling loosely on the camera now and then. What were the filmmakers going to do, shut down the village a second day to reshoot?
This handheld section has a markedly different feel from the rest of the movie, in which the camera inches along steadily when it moves at all, voices are rarely raised and evocative poetry (written by Bi, read by Chen) wafts through the air like a meditation-training audiobook. The script obsesses over cryptic imagery — radio newscasts report sightings of “wild men” with huge feet; Chen dreams of embroidered slippers floating in a river; characters draw clocks and watches on any available surface. Kaili Blues invites academic thesis-level dissection, but thanks in part to Chen’s unforced performance, it never feels pretentious. How it has managed to stay so under the radar since its debut at Locarno last August is anyone’s guess.
Venue: New Directors/New Films
Production companies: China Film International Media Co., Heaven Pictures
Cast: Yongzhong Chen, Yue Go, Linyan Liu, Feiyang Luo, Lixun Xie, Zhuohua Yang, Shixue Yu, Daquing Zhao
Director-screenwriter: Gan Bi
Producer: Zijian Wang
Executive producers: Jianguo Ding, Shen Yang
Director of photography: Tianxing Wang
Production designer: Yun Zhu
Editor: Yanan Qin
Composer: Giong Lim
Not rated, 109 minutes
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