The Dog – Lam Can-zhao (2015)

There are films that one struggles to forget. They stay with you either because they are terrible, or simply really good. Others stay with you because they’re affective in their simplicity, and really touch your heart. This fascination with films that don’t let me go has reemerged with Lam Can-zhao’s wonderful The Dog, which proposes multiple layers to the viewer about life and human relationships. It is one of many examples of a striving independent film community in China that creates a high-quality output, often without many people being aware of it because those films are not always easy to get your hands on. 

The Dog is set in Guangzhou, China, in early 2014. A mother and her daughter appear to wait for the bus on the roadside. It’s a busy road. Scooters rush by, people walk past. There is a persistently high noise level that fills the director’s long take. The camera is static. Just like the people in front of us, who wait for the bus, the camera doesn’t move. It’s patiently waiting, surrounded by a sea of noise and movement. “Action!” Someone shouts from behind the camera. Is it the director himself? Does it come from a film crew nearby? It upsets the constant stream of movement, of our being invested, hypnotised by the passing scooters. In fact, it is the beginning of the director creating an at times frustrating, yet enjoyable encounter with his film, cleverly yet cruelly cutting at moments you just want to stay with a little longer. His cuts feel brutal at times, like a book which suddenly closes on us, depriving us from further reading.

The cuts become an editorial manifestation of the dog the director follows. A stray dog. He falls out of a basket at the beginning of the film, and then functions as a narrative thread, connecting our characters, people on the margins of society; a woman who is bored to death, living on the roof top with her boyfriend who is never really there; a man whose wife is severely ill and whom he has to take care of; a woman who tries to make a living by running her own snack service. The characters are as varied as can be, yet they share the exclusion from society. They share the invisibility, the fate of being forgotten. They share a life on the margins, in the dark. But they also share the company of a nameless dog.

A dog, who travels from one character to another, because everyone has a heart big enough to pick him up, but no one has the means or the chance to keep him. It is here that the previously mentioned cuts achieve their meaning. The director leads us on. A scene is picking us up. We feel comfortable, expect to stay, but then he brutally cuts and we’re put in front of the door again. Just like the dog. A young woman picks him up. She takes her distance, caresses him with one of her feet, but eventually takes him in. While preparing to give him a wash, her boyfriend arrives. They have sex, which we observe from the dog’s perspective, who sits at the other end of the room. “Take him away. It makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s like there is another eye in the room.” None of her arguments stick. He wants her to get rid of the dog.

This is the beginning of a journey through the margins of Guangzhou. Lam Can-zhao shoots the city in gorgeous black-and-white. Of course, this supports a narrative of people living on the margins, in poverty, away from the buzzing life of the high street. But the director does something else, which I noticed comparatively late. The stark black-and-white is combined with a particularly tight framing. It feels like tunnel vision at times, allowing us a rather boxy view of everything. Trapped where our characters are, confined to their places, both physical (their homes) and metaphorical (in society), without the means to break through the walls that the director so effectively recreates with his aesthetics. 

It is an astonishingly claustrophobic world, which Lam Can-zhao’s dog takes us through. Uncomfortable, tight, a dark prison. The camera is often positioned on knee-height. There is no overview. There is no wide angle. There is only a small square, a snippet of a life, which suffocates Lam’s characters. In the last half hour of the film, after a gun shot, the director cuts to a slow-motion of the dog running across what looks like a dump yard. Is what we see a distant memory? Or is what we see happening in the here and now? Lam plays with time and space here, disorienting us by cutting the sound. Sound allows us a temporal and spatial orientation. But Lam remains true to his approach of locking the viewer into a claustrophobic prison s/he cannot escape from. 

Only towards the end does the tight grip loosen. Lam shows us an open field from above, the camera pans across house roofs when a Buddhist monk arrives in a village and asks a young boy for meat for the dog. There is warmth to it. The sun shines. It is a scene very different from what we have seen before. It’s as though the film begins to breathe a bit, surfaces from the darkness in order to breathe before it returns into the claustrophobic darkness. 

The Dog is a magnificent debut feature that is strong on aesthetics and narrative. It is not always overt in what it wants to say, which makes it a particularly affective film because you need to open up and feel in order to read the film, which deals essentially with the nature of being human, with loving attachment but confining pressure. The dog becomes a vehicle for the exploration of characters who each have their burden to carry. It is a gentle film, full of emotion that bubbles under the surface, tickled by the presence of the dog, but not tickled enough to be released. Perhaps it is for this reason that the film as a whole, and specific scenes in particular, will stay with me because there is something that hasn’t been said, and it’s this that sticks more than anything else. 

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Chantal Akerman (1975)

On. Off. On. Off. On. Off.

A really fascinating, almost hypnotising focus of Jeanne turning on the light whenever she enters a room and turning off the light whenever she leaves a room stays with me after those almost four hours I spent with Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece yesterday. Of course, Akerman says a lot more in this film. Yet I felt absolutely drawn to this small, ordinary action we all do every day, which the director, in her exploration and recording of a housewife’s routine and daily chores, highlights almost to the extreme. I cannot recall a single film that renders this ordinary gesture extraordinary to such an extent. I’m aware that Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) has been talked and written about from various angles, but there is something in this persistent turning on and off of the light that really struck me as marvellous, as simple as the action may seem or actually is. Perhaps one can call it a visual meditation, a meditation on screen, calling on you to be present, to be in the moment and notice your surrounding and be present with everything you do. Don’t get caught up in thinking. Just be…with the light switches, in that case, something in your house that I’m sure you never even think about until it stops working.

Jeanne Dielman is a magnificent piece that really is as brilliant as it is simple. Akerman’s long takes of repetitive actions cause the images to dive very slowly into your brain. They dig into it and take roots there. At the very beginning of my exploration of Lav Diaz’s films, I had the feeling that I could remember an entire film, scene by scene, because Diaz places emphasis on time, on duration. Unless we’re speaking of traumatic memories, which are often distorted and incomplete, creating memories of something takes time. On a basic level, we can think of learning a foreign language; learning vocabulary, learning grammatical structures. Over and over again. Until one day, we become fluent and no longer need to actively think about the right word to use in a sentence. It becomes natural. One begins to live a language. While watching Jeanne, I felt as if I learned something, as if I learned each scene as a form of language which Akerman tries to teach me, a language that I would become fluent in at some point.

I couldn’t help but think about all the other slow films I have seen since late 2009. It’s been almost ten years that I have been following this, and yes, of course, even though Jeanne has always been one of the icons of Slow Cinema, I have admittedly watched it late in my personal and professional exploration of the film movement. At the same time, I believe that it came at the perfect time. It was with my discovery of Lav Diaz that I began to see the real value of slow films. Contrary to the argument that nothing ever happened in those films, I realised that there is a lot going on, but it’s rather small, almost unimportant things that we tend to overlook, just like the repeated action of turning on and off the light. Jeanne is a hyperreal film, in which a lot happens. Not much is said. Dialogues are rare, and emphasis is placed on Jeanne’s daily chores. She follows her daily routine. Always the same thing, for the same amount of time. Until something upsets the routine.

It’s the little changes that are fascinating in Jeanne and that really drive the film. All of a sudden, she forgets to turn off the light in the bedroom. All of a sudden, she leaves the door to the bathroom open. All of a sudden, she forgets to turn on the light in the hallway. All of a sudden, she takes her coffee at a local bar later than usual. All of a sudden, dinner isn’t ready when her son comes home. All of a sudden…

Those small things we wouldn’t worry about become a real source of tension on the one hand, and exhaustion on the other throughout the second half of the film. The film, or rather Jeanne, becomes a collapsing house of cards. Her routine unravels. Given her absolute insistence on it, it is spiralling out of control. To add to this, Akerman creates a tension here between narrative and mise-en-scène. The director maintains her well-organised, rigorous, static framing and opposes it to the collapse of Jeanne’s routine, to the collapse of her protagonist’s state of mind, to her exhaustion. Stasis versus movement, rigorousness versus upheaval, stability versus collapse – these are the underlying themes that collude over and over again.

Perhaps an example is an order. Not long after the start of Jeanne Dielman, I began to think about Liu Jiayin’s 2005 Oxhide I. The experience of the film, of the actions that take place in Jeanne’s appartement, had a degree of claustrophobia to it. I remember Liu’s film creating this tense atmosphere that was impossible to escape. Akerman doesn’t always use the same tight framing, but her mise-en-scène feels tense. There is a pretty strong discrepancy between the (medium) long shots and the obsessive-compulsive action that takes place in front of the camera. The former allows for freedom, the second imprisons you. It’s not easy to create a clearly-defined feeling about this film, because there is a constant shift between those two extremes.

Just as Jeanne shifts between those extremes in the second half of the film – she upsets her routine while trying to pursue it – so does the viewer. This is what makes the film, despite all its routine, its repetition, its ordinariness, its simplicity, so exciting. It reminded me of a peaceful river that, here and there along the way, shows little swirls. And it’s perhaps the perfect illustration of slow film and my own personal belief that it’s best represented by the Chinese concept of time; time as a river that carries its water at different speeds, with swirls at some points but not at others, swirls that introduce speed to the water flow, but also circularity. I cannot think of a clearer example of this than Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. It is a shame that writing on the film focuses primarily on Jeanne, on the chores of a housewife and on feminism. Akerman always said she wasn’t a feminist filmmaker, and I think that by focusing on aspects of feminism exclusively, you actually miss the complexity in simplicity and the shifts, twists, swirls and constant changes that makes this a great film rather than “only” a representation of the hard life of a housewife in Brussels in the 1970s.

Oxhide II – Liu Jiayin (2009)

Hooray! It took me almost to the day four years before I watched the sequel of Liu Jiayin’s fascinating Oxhide (2005), which struck me primarily because of its use of a tight framing and the director’s success at making us feel the lack of space in the family flat. This was not only a literal thing, however. Her parents, who had run a shop that sold Oxhide leather bags, was in trouble and I remember Liu’s father saying that he wouldn’t be able to sell anything if he didn’t put discounts on his products.

Four years after her film about family life in a small and cramped apartment, Liu Jiayin returns home to film a sequel, a different part of the family’s life in which she takes part. Oxhide II (2009) is less about oxhide leather and bag-making, than it is about making dumplings. In some ways, Oxhide II could be a perfect cooking show, but without the audience buzz, the fast cuts, without the music to create suspense as to who has to leave the cooking competition…yes, so maybe it’s not quite that. But Liu’s film is very much a record of a family tradition and after more than two hours watching this, you do get hungry!

In fact, Oxhide II uses the family’s making of dumplings as a visual shield behind which the director hides the ongoing, and apparently worsening, difficulties of the family’s business which become audible here and there in fragments of discussions between Liu’s father and mother, until she herself chips in. The film starts in a room, one would perhaps assume a sort of workshop, where Liu’s father is working on new material for his bags. The camera is set on a rather low level, possibly positioned on a small stool very close to the table her father uses for work. The position of the camera somehow does make you feel as if you’re a little child who can just about look over the table to see what daddy is doing. But the camera also brings across once more the nature of the family’s flat: cramped, almost suffocating the viewer because there is no empty and therefore “free” space to look at that could give you a break from all the items right in front of your nose. I cannot quite remember the actual aspect ration of Oxhide I but there is a strong discrepancy going on between the super wide screen used in Oxhide II and the actual content of the frame. I personally associate a wide screen always with freedom, with breathing space. In some ways, Xavier Dolan did a wonderful demonstration of that in Mommy (you can watch the scene here). What we see in Liu’s film, however, is the opposite. The frame feels suffocating because it seems too slim. The borders push down on us from top and bottom, and the content of the frame reinforces the idea of being entrapped.

All the while we see every stage of making dumplings… This is bizarre but also somewhat enjoyable, interesting, and, in some ways, satisfying. Oxhide II does not have a lot of scenes. I didn’t count the cuts Liu used, but there were probably less than ten over the course of over two hours. She keeps the camera running for as long as possible before she cuts, which is demonstrated beautifully in the very first scene in which we first see her father working on new designs. Then her mother arrives with a bunch of chives from the market, disappears into another room invisible to us, then returns with a bowl and a sack of flour in it. Liu’s dad asks, “You want to put this here already?” The reasons he asks this is that the table he had worked on will also be the table they will use to prepare (and cook and eat) the dumplings. So he needs to clean it first, which he does, and then both move the table to that there is more space in the room. The moving of the table happens right in front of the camera, and this moving changes the mise-en-scène right in front of our eyes. This change doesn’t come through a cut, which is usually the case. On the contrary, Liu allows us to witness this change, and I found it marvellous. Simply by moving the table around, the entire perspective changes for us.

This change of perspective is not only to be taken visually. What starts off as a film about making dumplings (more or less), slowly becomes a film about the ongoing business problems the family faces. Oxhide I contained quite a bit about this, and it is in Oxhide II that Liu’s mother says that after 7 years she can no longer handle the pressure of not knowing whether she can pay the shop rent or pay the workers. What sets this off is the looming fear of the contract for their shop not being renewed. Liu’s father tells himself that they wouldn’t close his shop because he designed and produced everything himself. He goes as far as saying “Shops like mine are the future!” But there is little support coming from the family and he himself knows that he tries to hold on to a business that is neither successful nor does it seem to lift the family’s living standard in any way. There is a telling scene in which the father stands against the wall, his head hanging like that of a sad dog. He realises the futility of lying to oneself and also has to fight off the continuous remarks by his wife and his daughter about the pointlessness of going on. To me, he looks humiliated, perhaps emasculated as the bread winner whose shop just doesn’t bring in any profit.

Liu changes the visual perspective (the camera angle) several times in the film. It is like seeing the process of making dumplings from every possible angle, although she hardly ever goes much above the heads of herself or her parents. The camera remains on a comparatively low level, or even goes to the very bottom, to the floor, in order to film the actual cooking process of the dumplings. Liu, all the while, is learning the process, which is funny at times. The film is not cheery at all, but Liu’s presence and her attempts at learning how to make dumplings is funny indeed! I remember the scene in which she tries to cut chives the length of 4mm using a ruler in order to determine the length… She takes the process serious, and I couldn’t figure out whether she was really like this or whether she just wanted to bring some fun into an otherwise sombre film.

I don’t think I’m able to say which of the two films I like best. They’re both very good in their own ways, and Liu certainly is a great director. There have been rumours for quite some time now that she’s working on a third instalment of Oxhide. I wonder what that one will be about…