Kaili Blues – Bi Gan (2015)

It is impossible to retain a past thought, to seize a future thought, and even to hold onto a present thought.

There couldn’t be a better beginning to a film than this extract of the Diamond Sutra, the most important sutra in Buddhism. It says so much about the reasons for our suffering. Do we not always try to project ourselves into the future? Are we not always haunted by past thoughts? And what about those wonderful present moments, which we would like to hold onto? There is a constant tension because of our attempts of controlling what is beyond our control.

And yet, this extract of the Diamond Sutra is not only there to make us aware of this curious state of eternal suffering. Chinese director Bi Gan also makes a statement about his film Kaili Blues, his debut feature, and, perhaps, about cinema in general. Especially the inability to hold on to a present thought… it has often been said that photography and film can capture the present moment. Indeed, so they do. Yet as soon as the present has been captured, it becomes part of the past. What is, has been. Bi Gan’s non-linear moving images (I wouldn’t call it a film just now) are a fascinating example of Daniel Frampton’s filmmind. His images are free floating, The film moves to wherever it wants to move. Past, present, future – it all seems to be one. The director’s forty-minute long-take in the second half of the film shows exactly this; the act of floating, floating memories, floating thoughts. We travel by motorcycle, by car. We follow this character, then another, all the while (re)discovering places and scenes that we remember from earlier.

Time has no meaning in Kaili Blues. Everything is. Temporal orientation is impossible and unnecessary. The film is no more than an invitation to float with the characters. A long circular, counterclockwise camera movement to the left, a long circular clockwise camera movement to the right – the camera becomes an indicator of the nature of time. Time is circular. There is repetition, there is rebirth. Freedom, relief, means breaking out of this circle. But Bi Gan doesn’t allow us to break out.

He holds us with lingering shots that resemble thoughts. He holds us with sounds that feel as though they come from our own mind, from our dreams and desires. He holds us. After twenty minutes, it feels as though we have already spent an eternity with Bi Gan’s characters, characters that draw watches on their wrists. The mechanical clock, the imposed partition of time, as an opponent to the very nature of Kaili Blues, the natural passage of time versus our modern perception of it, our modern desire to control time, to impose our rhythm on something that is beyond control – a marvellous point by the director.

Carefully composed, beautiful frames tell a story of emptiness, of distance. There is something missing. There is an absence that cannot be filled, a chasm that becomes deeper and wider with every scene. The independently moving camera opens up spaces and poses questions. If we try to find responses to our questions, time will wash over us like an overwhelming wave in the sea. We will get lost and have no means to catch up.

The reason for Chen’s imprisonment, the reason for Chen’s apparent adoption at a young age and the ensuing jealousy of his stepbrother, the role of Weiwei, Chen’s nephew – there is so much to explore, so many questions to ask, and not a single answer. Instead, we are shipwrecked, safe and secure on a piece of debris, but at the mercy of the sea, which the director keeps moving just like his camera. Long pans, slow zooms – these create waves that shift us to another place, to another time. And we forget where we are. We’re oblivious. In the end we become melancholic, we get the blues, subdued by somber frames, dull colours, and the endless movement in time without a goal ahead.

Bi Gan is, in his first debut feature, already a master of time, a puppet master who knows exactly what strings to pull and when. He follows the story where it wants to go. The camera becomes a companion along the road. At some point the question arose: have I seen this film already? An obscure feeling of familiarity surrounded me. Bi Gan walks in the steps of Béla Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a cinematic heritage he picks up and which turns into his own style. Kaili Blues is only the beginning.

Slow – Sascha Seifert (2013)

A film about snails – perhaps the most appropriate slow film you can imagine. Though I still think that a film about sloths, those beloved lazy animals that come down from their trees only once a week, would be an even better choice. We shall see what the future brings.

Slow is nothing more than a ninety-minute film about snails. It is a non-narrative film made entirely for contemplation. This is reinforced by the different sections within the film, which are introduced by Buddhist sayings. You’re not meant to do anything but watch. The film was shot in the Stuttgart Stadtpark, so a very usual environment with a very usual protagonist. But we would not stop to watch a snail for ninety minutes. In fact, we would likely not even notice the snails snailing from A to B. Life is too fast these days. The last thing people want is starring at a snail.

Truth is, there is some fascinating footage in the film, which, for me, triggered questions as to the life, anatomy etc of snails. The film made me curious, and made me realise that I had little idea of such a “basic” animal we all used to tease when we were little by touching – as we know now, now that we’re grown-ups – right into their eyes (poor things!).

Anyway, Slow is a nice meditation, and a nice argumentation between speed and slowness. It is also something that very much resonates with the concept of Slow Art, which asks you to slow down and look at things you usually walk past without noticing them. In some parts this works nicely in Slow. In others, I found the approach rather disappointing. This may sound like a paradox, but I stick to my belief that the film is too fast. It has little to do with the overall length. Even ninety minutes can feel exceptionally long. This reminds me of my first Lisandro Alonso film, Los Muertos, which was something like eighty minutes and I almost fell asleep.

The main problem with Slow is that the camera / editing work doesn’t do the subject matter justice. There is only one shot throughout the film that is a real long-take, which captured the slowness of a snail properly. All the other takes, while still longer than the average in popular cinema, were too short to give you enough time for contemplation. The editing work was just too visible. I wondered why a lot of the snaily scenes had to be cut. You could have easily waited until the snail was done with whatever it was doing, and then cut to another scene.

Unfortunately, it felt more as if Sascha Seifert wanted to show as much as possible of the snails, so he even cut repeatedly in order to show a snail from different angles. For me, it disrupted the process of contemplation. You cannot contemplate a scene if the director cuts it away from you. A film about snails needs long-takes à la Béla Tarr or Lav Diaz, a director who really has patience and the will to challenge the audience. Don’t get me wrong, Seifert is doing it here, but I wishes he would have pushed his concept a bit more to get to the very essence of slow-filmmaking.

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting IV

I want to continue with the slow and painterly journey today. You can find the previous three parts here, here and here. Last time, I briefly outlined the theme of verticality both in Chinese painting and in Lav Diaz’s films, with particular regard to the relation of Heaven and Earth, and the role of man in the universe.

Today, I want to add to this a brief summary of the concept of emptiness, which has its origins in Chinese painting. Emptiness never meant “empty” the way we would interpret it nowadays. Emptiness, or absence, always meant presence at the same time. It was the source of all things. Also, it has its roots in meditation. Painters meditated before they picked up a brush. They cleared, or “emptied”, their minds. This emptiness was thus a prerequisite for tranquility. This is particularly obvious in Zen painting. Here, objects are presented in front of a completely blank background.

I mentioned last week that there is always a space of emptiness sandwiched between the planes of Heaven and Earth. At least in traditional Chinese landscape painting. This emptiness was conveyed through the depiction of vast landscapes. This appears very similar to many slow films, as the landscape often plays a major role in them. Characters are often dwarfed, nature is dominant.

This is, obviously, a very literal reading. It is possible to extend the argument, though. In many slow films, but in Lav Diaz’s and Béla Tarr’s films especially, emptiness describes subjective mental states, which are then mirrored by (empty) landscapes. In Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos, for instance, emptiness stands for both the landscape – the film is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming – and the characters and interviewees, all of which have lost either family members or their entire property. Emptiness is here more absence, more destruction than actual non-existence. However, the strong typhoon did “empty” the region. Houses, rice fields, everything is gone. It is creepy to link this to what I said earlier: emptiness is the source of something new, but unfortunately, this is very much the case here.

In relation to the landscape as a mirror of a character’s mental state – this can be linked to the original Buddhist concept of emptiness, namely dependency. We’re empty of self-existence, meaning we only exist because of many other factors. We alone, without any influences, could not and would not exist. We’re dependent. Our life is the result of a combination of circumstances. This means in short that one thing determines another. We can thus also say here that the landscape determines its inhabitants and vice versa. They’re a mirror of one another. This is exactly what we see in Diaz’s films, as well as in Tarr’s films. Particularly the latter is a genius when it comes to showing the dependency of several elements. Everything is connected.

That leaves me with two more features. Stay tuned!

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting II

Last week I began to point to some research I have done last year. Today I want to go into a bit more detail about it.

Perhaps, I should make clear that I do not say that slow films are Chinese paintings. Nor do I say that all slow films can be compared to Chinese painting. This isn’t my intention, and I’m aware that it can look like it. This is why I clarify my intention beforehand.

I suppose that it can be difficult to see a connection between Chinese painting and Slow Cinema. However, only the term “Chinese” is really irritating, and it is only irritating because we divide the world into East and West. And why, with our own rich culture here in the West, should I make a journey to the East?

Chinese landscape painting

I spoke earlier about slow films’ link to landscape painting. It is important to see this link in a historical context. I cannot simply take, say, a Spanish landscape painting and make links to slow films just so that it fits to our Eurocentric reading. If I were to use a Spanish painting, I would ignore a vital part of art history, namely that landscape painting originated in the East, in China (London’s V&A museum currently exhibits striking artworks from China). What I see in any landscape painting has its roots – as vague as it may appear – in China. So why should I not start with it!?

The aesthetics of Chinese landscape painting derived from their philosophy (Buddhism, Taoism) and their take on nature. Nature as a governing force, man as the one who is only one part of the universe, but not the most important part of the universe.

While Westerners chased after the mechanical clock and attempted to divide time into ever smaller entities (to save time, and do more, as is the case today), the Chinese continued to live true to nature. In fact, when Western colonisers tried to introduce the mechanical clock in China, they were laughed at. The Chinese used them as toys, not as time pieces. Unfortunately, with the defeat in the Opium War against the British Empire, the Chinese were forced to adopt Western technology etc.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting has four major characteristics; emptiness, verticality, monochrome aesthetics, and, for me, the Three Perfections. Each of them made a specific contribution to the look of Chinese artwork. Not all of them were visible from the beginning of landscape painting, which is supposedly linked to the 4th century. Rather, it was a (slow) development towards perfection.

I will explain each of the characteristics in more detail in the coming weeks, and put them into the context of Slow Cinema. I hope this will give you an eureka effect similar to the one I had.

Stay tuned! Slowly…