'Stranded in Canton': Tribeca Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
An intense exploration of life in exile

Sweden's Mans Mansson teams up with Locarno winner Li Hongqi in a feature about a Congolese trader's wanderings in the Chinese city of Guangzhou

Just like the William Eggleston video piece from which it borrows its title, Stranded in Canton is a relentlessly delirious affair. With its perenially sweaty protagonist's anxiety often captured in close-up and cityscapes drenched in smog by day and lit by neon at night, Swedish filmmaker Mans Mansson's second fictional feature is an intense portrayal of an awestruck adventurer trying to carry out a near-impossible transaction in a distant land.

It's all a bit Heart of Darkness: among the film's first sequences is a scene when the lead character walks off from a port and then begins to wade into the bush. But this isn't a white buccaneer navigating the Congo. Reversing Joseph Conrad's colonial context, Stranded in Canton revolves around a Congolese entrepreneur trying to find his way in the world via an ill-fated business deal amid the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan China, the sprawling economic powerhouse with its own social ecology.

Co-written by Chinese writer-director (and Locarno top-prize winner) Li Hongqi - a pairing born out of a project incubation program at Denmark's CPH:DOX festival, where the completed film eventually made its bow last fall - Stranded in Canton, which hit Tribeca last week after screenings in Rotterdam in January, steers clear of convenient culture-clash clichés. The sight of Lebrun (Lebrun Iko Isibangi) navigating the quotidian in Guangzhou - learning Mandarin from a young woman who speaks perfect French, playing badminton with local pensioners in a park, singing Lionel Richie's All Night Long in a karaoke - is never played for easy laughs.

Instead, all this simply explains Lebrun's impasse, as he struggles to uphold his zeal for success despite his circumstances and, more importantly, himself. One of the many African traders who arrive in Guangzhou to have garments made at the comparatively cheap factories around the city, Lebrun's plan is to make a fortune back home by having T-shirts made in support of the re-election campaign of (real-life) Congolese president Joseph Kabila. Which is all very well, if not for the fact that Lebrun hasn't been able to come up with the cash to get his goods before the vote. With the incumbent having cemented his victory, Lebrun's "Vote Kabila" outfits are practically worthless.

Marooned in Guangzhou until he can get his business partners to wire him money, Lebrun can only wander around town, whiling his time away and somehow also finding ways to feed his self-delusions. Like those colonialist adventurers in Claire DenisWhite Material, Lebrun is naive in a way that obscures his logic. Mansson's Stranded in Canton is more concerned with interloper's internal meltdown; the darkness lies within Lebrun himself, and the seemingly foreign daily life in Guangzhou only heightens his alienation from his surroundings.

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It's perhaps apt that his relationship with a fellow Congolese trader, Sylvie (Nana Nya Sylvie), is devoid of visible physical intimacy. A long-term resident in Guangzhou, she advises Lebrun to be careful about dealings with locals: they're not strange, she says, "they're just Chinese". This casual racism should be taken in context, a reaction perhaps rooted in the much-documented confrontations between the local population and the African diaspora in the city; Mansson and Li might also want to play Sylvie - a fluent Mandarin speaker who seems to get on well otherwise with locals - as Mephisto to Lebrun's Faust, sowing seeds of doubts in an already convoluted mind.

But love does anchor Stranded in Canton, in the form of Lebrun's bond with his Chinese fixer, Frank (Frank No). Taking a leaf out of Wong Kar-wai's Argentina-set Happy Together, Mansson's story of expatriate life is defined by a same-sex friendship/relationship, with Lebrun and Frank becoming the equivalent to Tony Leung and Chang Chen in that 1997 film. Nothing much happens but the intensity of Lebrun's bond with Frank far surpasses that with Sylvie; their final encounter, over a game of keepy-uppy (like in Happy Together), is as heartrending a breaking of ties as any other.

This is yet another manifestation of the delicate details used in portraying the chaos sweeping Lebrun's mind and soul, his headspace soundtracked by Tom Skinner's music and Abdoulaye Diallo's sound design. Anchored by Lebrun's impressive performance as the protagonist and Mansson's skill in revealing the trauma behind all those veneers, Stranded in Canton is a moving treatise. Maybe there's a valid debate to be had about the cultural authenticity of the film (when compared to, say, pieces made by African filmmakers about their experiences in China), but this work is as much about universal human psychology as it is about politics.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival

Production companies: Mampasi AB in a Stiftelsen Svenska Filminstitutet, Sveriges Television, Konstnarsnamnden presentation

Cast: Lebrun Iko Isibangi, Nana Nya Sylvie, Frank No, Chen Suihua

Director: Mans Mansson

Screenwriter: Mans Mansson, Li Hongqi, George Cragg

Producers: Mans Mansson, Patricia Drati, Vanja Kaludjercic, Alex Chung, Laurent Baujard, Pierre-Emmanuel Fleuretin, Charlotte Most, Emma Akersdotter-Ronge

Director of photography: Mans Mansson

Production designer: Maja Kolqvist

Editor: George Cragg

Music: Tom Skinner

Sound designer: Abdoulaye Diallo

International Sales: Antipode Sales & Distribution

In French, Mandarin and English


No rating; 74 minutes



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