Kaili Blues (2015)

Review of film that formed part of the ‘0th’ Edition of the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF 2015)

A centre of culture for the Miao ethnic minority, Kaili is a county-level city with a subtropical climate in China’s Guizhou province. We learn all this, and other wiki-bits of information, over the course of Kaili Blues (aka Lu Bian Ye Can), which even features a young woman, Yangyang (Guo Yue), practising her patter as a would-be Kaili tourist guide. Yet for his debut, writer/director/camera operator Bi Gan – himself a Kaili native – prefers to map out the region’s more psychogeographic spaces. For Kaili Blues is, with its pace both meandering and gradually mesmerising, a chronology-confounding reverie on loneliness and loss, unfolding in locations all at once naturalistic and spellbinding.

Ex-con widower Chen Sheng (played by the director’s uncle Chen Yong-zhong, himself a real single ex-con) now works at a Kaili health clinic, and leads a solitary existence, his only friends being his much older female colleague at the clinic (Zhao Daqing) and his young nephew Weiwei (Luo Feiyang). When Chen’s feckless half-brother Crazy Face (Xie Lixun) sends Weiwei across to neighbouring Zhenyuan County with Chen’s old criminal associate turned watch seller Monk (Yang Zuohua), Chen, mindful of how he too was once abandoned as a boy in Zhenyuan, sets off to retrieve the child and reverse his own lifestory. Chen also takes with him keepsakes (an old photograph, a batik shirt and a cassette tape of pop songs) from the older doctor for a man whom she had left behind in Zhenyuan decades earlier, as she too tries to make peace with her own history. While making this crossing, Chen gets stuck for an afternoon in the small town of Dangmai, where time moves in mysterious ways, and aspects of Chen’s past and future take on concrete physical form.

While boasting no special effects, and shot in a handheld style that evokes documentary and cinéma vérité, Kaili Blues offers a brand of realism that is very much of the magical variety. In part it is the occasional presence of Chen’s verse-form voiceover, abstracting and refracting into pure poetry some of the thematic strands unravelling on screen. In part it is the way dreams and memories are presented, unannounced, in the same plain style as everything else, so that Chen’s oneiric and actual worlds all flow into one. And in part it is the irrational way in which the entirely banal goings on one afternoon in Dangmai come to reflect Chen’s (and Weiwei’s) circular life journey of longing and regret.

“It’s like being in a dream,” declares Chen at the end of the Dangmai sequence – all shot in a single, impossibly sinuous 41-minute take that not only tracks Chen’s various trips about town by moped, pick-up truck or on foot, and Yangyang’s looping cross-river excursion by ferry and bridge, but also zooms right in on an intense metempsychotic moment where Chen imagines a local hairdresser to be his late wife Zhang Xi. Something inexplicable and intangible happens in this lengthy bravura sequence, as its real-time linearity is uncannily invaded by different parts of Chen’s biography. It is like being in a dream – which only adds to the irony that the film’s most haunting and wondrous image of temporal paradox, coming right at the end of Kaili Blues, remains unobserved by Chen himself because he has just drifted off to sleep. With its criss-crossing of unusual motifs and a moody score (combining traditional Miao instrument the lusheng with electric guitar and synths) from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s regular composer Lim Giong, Kaili Blues is set to put the titular town on the cinematic map, and Bi amongst the most exciting new voices of China’s independent film scene.

© Anton Bitel