Directed by Gan Bi
Opens May 20 at the Metrograph
It’s easy to read Kaili Blues through first-time director Gan Bi’s background as a poet, given its elliptical narrative and emphasis on allusive beats and lyrical imagery. But such an approach might miss just how remarkably focused on material and sensual elements this stylistically astonishing debut is. It’s not that poetry isn’t central to the film—which occasionally pauses for recitations of enigmatic shards of poetry musing on such topics as the permanence of human enzyme—but rather that poetry is one element among many that Bi makes use of in this reshuffling of time and space.
The plot spins loosely around an ex-con doctor Chen (Yongzhong Chen) in the Guizhou province of rural China as he attempts to locate his nephew, who has been sent to a nearby town by his father, Crazy Face, and perhaps sold to a family there. Bi makes cagey use of thriller genre touchstones here, but they’re mostly a red herring used to provide a pre-loaded emotional canvas upon which to draw out his fixations with the fluidity of memory. A recurring image of unclear temporal origin, of Chen aboard a train moving through a tunnel, illuminated by the sparks of a cigarette like shards of thought, crops up repeatedly, once suddenly projected onto a wall within another scene. The film slowly reveals backstory and hints at future possibilities in carefully framed and stylized images, with also-first-time DP Tianxing Wang making an impressive debut of his own.
But it’s at roughly halfway through the film, as Chen finally arrives at the small town where he hopes to find his nephew, that Kaili Blues undertakes its most central gambit, pivoting from those gorgeous HD images to a handheld low-res digital camera with a shot that eventually reveals itself as an unbroken 40-minute take. Following Chen as he’s carried by several forms transportation, including a boat and several motorbikes, and making space for a haircut, a DIY rock concert-cum-karaoke-session and the world’s briefest love affair, the shot instills the same sort of awe that recent single-take films such as Victoria and Russian Ark do, but without their focus on perfectionism. Despite being a painstakingly choreographed move through an entire town that seemingly makes use of every inhabitant, the shot makes room for chance and error, with mic cables briefly visible, the camera hurrying to catch up with speeding bikes, and, most jarringly, pushing Adobe Premiere Pro’s “Warp Stabilizer” to its limit. That effect is intended for use in smoothing out jerky camera moves, but here Bi lets its seams show, which has the effect of sometimes turning the image into a wobbly, disorienting Jell-O—a rough equivalent to overcranking AutoTune, otherworldly and oddly human.
This 40-minute shot is the talking point of the film, of course, but it’s that combination of impressive technique and quiet playfulness that leaves the strongest impression, giving the film’s more esoteric concerns a strong base. In a way, Kaili Blues is perhaps one of the closest continuations of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky’s insistence on film as “sculpting in time,” but where Tarkovsky sought to incite a sense of immensity and the sublime in films such as Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, Bi here takes a far more gentle, handcrafted, and playful approach. It’s impressive and it’s bold, but it’s also delightfully skeptical of the concept of auteurist perfection.