'Dragonfly Eyes' ('Qing Ting zhi yan'): Film Review | Locarno 2017

Dragonfly Eyes -Still 1 -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
A failed experiment.

Chinese artist Xu Bing makes his directorial debut with this narrative composed entirely of surveillance footage.

Actual live streams and webcam and CCTV footage are stitched together to support a rather eccentric narrative in Dragonfly Eyes (Qing Ting zhi yan), the directorial debut from Chinese artist Xu Bing. The project is conceptually interesting, with Xu relying mainly on voiceovers to create a semi-coherent story that links together the many disparate shots of people and places from all over China (if anything, it becomes clear that everyone in the Middle Kingdom is constantly being watched, albeit often in grainy, pixelated images). But the narrative that Xu’s two screenwriters have concocted — about a young woman who escapes from a Buddhist monastery, milks cow at an industrial farm, is fired from a dry-cleaning job and finally, after some plastic surgery, becomes a famous YouTube-like star — is more outlandish than believable and despite the fact the internet plays a role in the home stretch, the entire spoken narrative remains strangely separate from the feature’s fascinating formal qualities.

Currently the vice president of the state-run Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Xu also has a good reputation in the international art world, which is at least partly due to his two gigantic construction-debris statues that were documented in Daniel Traub’s short documentary Xu Bing: Phoenix. The artist’s standing and the film’s unusual source of its footage should help propel his debut onto the rosters of festivals with a more experimental bent. It premiered in competition at the Locarno Film Festival and is next headed to the cutting-edge Wavelengths section at the Toronto international Film Festival.

Xu’s debut frequently recalls 2012’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, an avant-garde feature from Portuguese directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata. Both films explore Modern China while relying almost exclusively on voiceover to give their footage a sense of fiction-like narrative momentum. But unlike that title, which used a film noir-template inspired by the Jane Russell vehicle Macao, what is lacking here is a sense of overarching structure and ways in which the unusually sourced visuals and the more classically streamlined story either reinforce one another or are contrasted in illuminating ways. In Dragonfly Eyes, the conceit of using surveillance footage remains just that: a conceit.

The film’s protagonist is talked about but never seen in any form of close-up because she’s not played by an actress, as all footage is culled from existing, real-world material. The film has a robotized, English-language voiceover that spouts inelegantly phrased platitudes like “The storyline swims into view” or “This is a woman. Her privacy is all used up."

It is explained that the heroine is called Qing Ting or “Dragonfly”— an obvious surveillance metaphor as a dragonfly has over 20,000 “eyes.” She’s 17 and a novice at a Buddhist temple when the film opens, but that doesn’t mean she’s not already opinionated. We hear that she’s against a proposed new hall that the abbot wants to have constructed after a generous donation but that she believes might affect the holy site’s feng shui. All this is only heard, as the visuals show us CCTV footage of an otherwise unidentified temple at various times during the day and evening. Sometimes, of course, a woman passes through the image, though there is no conscious effort to even ensure there’s a constant female presence onscreen while her story unfolds. (What is fascinating is that, as a viewer conditioned to constantly connect images to the narratives we hear and understand, you can’t help but project Qing Ting onto every female character who does happen to appear onscreen.)

Qing Ting (voiced in Mandarin by Liu Yongfang) decides to leave the convent and ends up working in a highly mechanized dairy factory, where she meets Ke Fan (voiced by Su Shangqing), who is immediately smitten with her. He takes things a little too far and ends up in jail while she moves from a job at a dry-cleaning business to a waitressing gig and, finally, after plastic surgery, to internet stardom as a web celebrity called Xiao Xiao.

These constant changes of venues, cities and jobs ensure that the footage doesn’t get too repetitive even if we rarely see our protagonists. But the narrative hoops through which Qing Ting is made to jump also make it hard to take any of the story seriously. What aspiring nun would sign up for milking cows? Wouldn’t plastic surgery ruin your facial feng shui? Does every holy woman secretly dream of becoming a web celebrity, singing along to songs somewhere in a corner of the internet for likes, comments and viewers’ gifts?

The story that screenwriters Zhai Yongming and Zhang Hanyi have come up with is of course preposterous. There is no way Qing Ting convinces as a character; she is uniquely used as a vehicle to connect the topics that Xu wants to bring up (“explore” seems too generous a term). “In this society you need to change your mind or your appearance,” we hear at one point, and indeed the importance of beauty — Qing Ting is considered too ugly to work in a fashion boutique — and plastic surgery are subjects that come up more than once. But the formal choices that Xu has made make it impossible to dig very deeply into the issue; beauty is about visuals, but most of the visuals here are grainy, low-quality video excerpts of people whose faces look like pixelated Picasso paintings. Indeed, in CCTV world, there is no hierarchy of beauty. The screenwriters then have another ace up their sleeve as they try to shoehorn Ke Fan into their plastic-surgery subplot. But instead of neatly tying up a potentially fascinating thematic thread, it just opens up another Pandora’s box of unanswered questions.

One thing is clear: The overall picture that emerges of contemporary China is not a pretty one. Conspicuously, Xu and editors Matthieu Laclau (also one of the producers) and Zhang Wenchao cut to footage of real-life accidents and other assorted ills more than once, from an apparent drowning to a frightening scene of road rage and a spectacular but clearly deadly plane crash. The message isn’t subtle, and there’s also the rather icky notion that we are watching real people die or get gravely injured and that their misfortune is used here so that Dragonfly Eyes can pep up its energy in places it started to get a little monotonous. Xu also doesn't really explore the reason behind the existence of all the footage, how it affects our daily lives or ways in which it could be beneficial (like in solving crimes). 

The makers of the film reportedly sifted through 10,000 hours of footage to come up with the current edit. Perhaps some of that time should have been used to try and come up with ways in which the film’s contents and form would work together as one. 

Production company: Xu Bing Studio
Director: Xu Bing
Screenplay: Zhai Yongming, Zhang Hanyi
Producers: Xu Bing, Zhai Yongming, Matthieu Laclau
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Zhang Wenchao
Music: Hanno Yoshihiro
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)

In Mandarin, English
81 minutes