Closing Time – Nicole Vögele (2018)

The beauty of Slow Cinema is that directors welcome you to their world and let you explore it in your own way. If you follow one director in particular and have seen all of his/her films, then each new film feels like coming home. I hadn’t realised to what extent this seemed to be true until I saw Nicole Vögele’s superb Closing Time, set in Taiwan, in an environment that feels so familiar after several films by Tsai Ming-liang. It is like sitting on that nice, comfy sofa that Tsai Ming-liang had prepared for me and which Vögele invited me to sit on to see her film. It is marvellous to notice the true force of slow films, which sink in and stay with you unconsciously, films that do make you feel as if you are there with the filmmaker.

The wind howls around us. Strong waves brutalise the coast. And then – peace. Absolute peace. The stormy sea gives way to an empty street at night. There is a large part of an uprooted tree on the pavement. Faint music. Rice cooking in boiling water.

This sequence of scenes feels almost like dream. It is like a ferocious journey at first, before it becomes an almost magical dream-like state. The alternation between noise and silence, movement and stillness, is a key element in Vögele’s film. Taipei at night, a city of contrasts. Closing Time tells the story of Mr Ku and his night-time eatery. His life, it happens at night. He chops veg, he cooks, he helps his wife serving customers. Despite the work in the kitchen, the eatery seems to be a haven for peace during the busy nights in Taipei. It’s a meeting point, it’s where workers come to eat, to have a chat. Mr Ku knows a lot of his customers. Eating there means becoming part of the family, part of a circle of people who follow their routine jobs in order to keep their heads above water.

The night in Taipei isn’t black. I was reminded again of the thought-provoking book Nuit by Michaël Foessel, the idea that the night has become something rare. Darkness has become light. The time for rest has become the time for work. Taipei never sleeps in Vögele’s film. The black of the night that used to be is now tinted in cold blue. The night that used to be is now an artificial day. At a vast market hall, shop owners on scooters shop ingredients. After a typhoon destroyed local harvests, people have no other choice but buy their products from the mainland. Mr Ku complains about the costs. Every month, he spends more on the ingredients, but the eatery cannot keep up.

Closing Time is about fragile existences, created by the night, by economic conditions, by a multitude of circumstances. There is life at the margins, a life which we don’t (want to) see, but which continues regardless. People make do. There is a beautiful scene half-way through the film that struck me as one of the most special scene cuts I have come across in recent years. For approximately an hour we follow the fragile existence of people, at times accompanied by the sound of ferocious winds and heavy rain, the coming typhoon threatening the people’s fragile existence even more. And then, Vögele cuts to a park, a literal but also a visual breathing space. There is a man playing the saxophone somewhere. He’s difficult to spot, but the beautiful, peaceful melody is just… it opens your heart.

So does a long, slow pan, which allows us to see the nature outside Taipei, a world that allows us to breathe, but that also shows the clear contrast between the world of the Nachtschwärmer, the night owls, and the world that seems to be out of reach for them. Mr Ku speaks about the necessity to take a break. His fragile existence also depends on his ability to rest, to break out of the hamster wheel which his life has become. Closing Time is very much about this hamster wheel, about the constraints that those at the margins have to abide by. But it is just as much a film about agency, about the liberty to take a decision that allows you to be. Instead of returning home and back to work, Mr Ku takes a detour with his scooter one day. He doesn’t seem to have a specific destination in mind. The only destination he drives towards is a badly needed escape, in much the same way the saxophone allowed us to escape from the eternal blue night earlier in the film.

Vögele’s film is a genuine gem. It feels as though she continues where Tsai Ming-liang had left off. It feels like a continuation of a world that slow-film fans might recognise, but she adds her own touch to this world. In an interview, she once said “For me, it’s not important if I shoot a film in Taipei or in Zurich. I think what really interests me is a really deep humanistic thing. Why are we here? What is human? I think that it’s not important where you do that.” But it’s important how you do it, and Vögele shows in Closing Time that she is well-equipped to explore those questions with her camera.

Taste of Cement – Ziad Kalthoum (2017)

My father’s hand was the city of Beirut.

I came to Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement by accident and it’s one of those accidents that you’re grateful for. Not so long ago, I read a long article on the Guardian about our obsession with concrete. Concrete, stable, over-towering and yet destructive, is perhaps the symbol of our advanced modern societies. Kalthoum’s film is not only about this though. It’s a poetic journey in many ways; literary, cinematically, humanly.

I’m trying to remember my life before the war.

Ziad Kalthoum tells two stories. His film is set in Lebanon. The camera observes Syrian migrant workers who are employed on construction sites around Beirut. They’re rebuilding a country that has been ravaged by war; all the while war is destroying their own country. Syria, where war has been raging for eight years, is always in the background of the film. The country is for a long time an absent protagonist, the main protagonist even, and it’s in the fabric of each character, of each movement, each action. Syria is there.

But it’s crumbling. It’s being dismantled, destroyed. The director, from Homs, puts the country at the horizon. There is a feeling of longing, of desire, but also of anxiety. After a twelve-hour shift on the rooftops of Beirut’s new building complexes, the workers return to Syria. In their makeshift housings, beyond humane, they travel back home via their mobile phones. Social media allows them to follow the war and the ongoing destruction. It is here that Kalthoum merges the two locations of the film; one a war-torn country, the other in a mode of post-war reconstruction.

The sound of the sea is deafening, but the waves stand still.

Kalthoum guides the viewer through the use of a voice-over, through the use of a worker’s memories of his childhood, the times when his own father returned from work abroad, from Beirut, from the construction site. With a taste of cement. The man’s memories are vivid, almost palpable. We can imagine a young boy running towards his father, fascinated by those white hands that show the marks of hard labour. “Cement eats your skin, not just your soul,” the voice-over tells us. The food the father cooked upon his return had always tasted of cement, the young man remembers.

This taste, it is a bitter one. The film begins with breathtaking imagery. Each frame is aestheticised, photographic, marvellous. But the images contradict the voice-over. They contradict the hardships, the war at home. The second part of the film begins to make Syria, the absent protagonist of the film, visible, not only through pictures and videos on the workers’ mobile phones. The slow, almost peaceful movements of the cranes in Beirut are juxtaposed with gun turrets of tanks. The movements are the same, the purpose on opposite sides. Creation, destruction. Destruction, creation.

When your palm corrodes you stop counting the days. Time stops.

Man giveth. Man taketh.

There is a special rhythm to the film. It is contemplative, observational, poetic, but the director disrupts this rhythm several times. Those disruptions, they function as shock moments and as a link to the images of destruction in Syria. The taste of cement is present not only in those who work abroad on construction sites. It is also present in those who are buried underneath the ruins of their houses, in those who dig for survivors.

Kalthoum’s rapid editing towards the end of the film evokes the traumatic shocks of war. The routine and repetitive work processes give way to footage of destruction and of death. It is as though the film comes full circle. It is as though it points to the senseless circle of construction-destruction, the sheer painful irony of Syrians helping to rebuild one country while their own is ravaged. Taste of Cement is a look at our own conflictual nature and one cannot help but keep a bitter aftertaste.

Century of Smoke – Nicolas Graux (2019)

There is one aspect of my work in the field of Slow Cinema, which I like more than anything else: the opportunity to travel the world via the eyes of filmmakers who listen to marginalised people around the globe. For the first time in ten years writing on the subject, I have been taking a trip to Laos, a country perhaps no one really knows much about. Perhaps the capital, at most. But when it comes to life in Laos, a small country in south-east Asia, with almost seven million inhabitants, we know nothing. Nicolas Graux has travelled there to use film as a means to tell the story of Laosan, a young man, married with two children, who is addicted to opium.

This addiction doesn’t come from nowhere. On the contrary. As Laosan tells us in the second half of the film, the family grows the highly profitable plant. The plantations in themselves don’t cause the people to get addicted, but a lot of men in this Akha society are. Laosan’s parents, he tells us, became addicted after the death of his brother. They didn’t know how to handle their grief. Opium became a relief and his father, in particular, is seen smoking time and again throughout the film. This is only part of the story, however. The core of Graux’s film focuses on Laosan himself and the ways in which his opium addiction affects not only his own life but also that of the people around him.

Graux uses breathtaking long-takes in order to situate us in the milieu the Ahka are living in. Tight, almost suffocating close-ups are replaced with wide open shots of the jungle, low-hanging clouds moving along the horizon. Laosan is a heavy smoker, he tells us. As soon as withdrawal effects are setting in, he needs to tackle them by smoking again and, more importantly, smoking more. We see him preparing the drug, we see him inhaling and exhaling. We see the smoke that leaves his mouth and his nostrils. The repeated shift between close-ups and long shots resembles Laosan’s smoking process; the film inhales and exhales. The low-hanging clouds become a mirror for the opium smoke that infests a substantial number of Graux’s frames.

But the film is not only an aesthetically pleasing, visually stunning piece. Graux lays open the problems of opium addiction in society. Laosan is an absent husband and father. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. He has lost all energy, all perspective for the future. He is almost lethargic. His parents, especially his father, urge him to move away from the region and to build a new life somewhere else, to a region that had something to offer. Laosan’s father reiterates time and again that the region had nothing more to offer, and that his son needs to make a move fast. The dialogue between parents and son, shot in an extensive long-take, is ironic in some ways. The father, himself addicted to opium, scolds his son for losing all interest in making something out of his life. It is clear that the problem is the opium, and yet the father doesn’t mention it. Opium – the elephant in the room.

Most heart-breaking is a sequence that focuses on the women in the village. It is they who suffer the most. They speak of their horror witnessing the drastic change in their husbands. They speak of their fears of being beaten because opium makes their husbands violent. They speak of wanting to leave their miserable lives behind, of going to China, of looking for a new man, a new job. Laosan’s wife even speaks of suicide because she can no longer live this life. It’s her children who hold her back. Who would look after them? she wonders. Her plan is to move away as soon as her children are old enough. Until then, she will be locked into a tiring fight against this disease, this addiction that has changed the face of the region.

But perhaps there is hope. Laosan tells us that the Laotian government seeks to prohibit the growth of opium. The young man, marked by over a year of addiction, is hoping for this change, giving him the chance to finally come off it. For Laosan, being surrounded by opium is counterproductive to any attempt at freeing himself from those chains. He hopes for the government, for the prohibition of opium in the country, in order to get clean. It is, perhaps, the desire of a vast number of people. Laosan is only one of many. Graux allows him to tell his story and his camera is a patient observer, which stylistically also reiterates the idea of lethargy. Cinematic slowness becomes an expression of each and every lethargic day spent in the mountains and hoping for better days to come.

I couldn’t help but think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul several times while watching Graux’s film. There is a degree of similarity between Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and Century of Smoke. Is it the location? The aesthetics? The way of observation? I haven’t found the answer yet, but regardless, Graux walks in the steps of big-name slow-film directors. With Century of Smoke he has arrived at the very heart of Slow Cinema, and he sits comfortably amongst Weerasethakul, Lisandro Alonso and Tsai Ming-liang.

The year after Dayton – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (1997)

Since summer last year, I have slowly but surely made my way through the filmography of Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter, who I have started to perceive as one of the most important filmmakers working today. He is the European equivalent to Wang Bing, albeit more composed. His films allow us to see what we usually wouldn’t see. He tells the stories of those who lack listeners. He is the listener, and so are we. The Year After Dayton, his second documentary, is set in Bosnia the year after the peace treaty has been signed. The 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the ensuing collapse of Yugoslavia, were dominated by war in Europe.

I was born in 1988 and was well aware through TV news that my childhood was filled with news of brutal conflicts that felt like sort of next door, rather than at the other end of the world. There was not only Bosnia. The clearest I remember is the war in Kosovo, primarily because this was the first time I consciously heard adults around me speaking of the German army and their work there. We also had a new family moving into the house where we lived. They came from Kosovo as refugees, and one of the daughters became one of my best friends in the early 2000s. I learned a lot about conflicts, about Islam, and human suffering during that time.

The Year After Dayton is with a running time of over three hours a long film, but the time spent on the subject is absolutely necessary. Geyrhalter divides the film into four parts, four seasons, which allows us to see a change within the first 12 months after the Dayton peace treaty came into effect. The Bosnian war lasted three-and-a-half years, which incidentally coincides with the films running time in hours, and it was a bloodshed beyond description, not long after Europe had found peace once more in 1945. But as Geyrhalter’s film shows, the years of conflict became a starting point for a development which we still see today. Several interviewees in the film tell us that life before the war was peaceful because no one cared about the concept of national identity. Croats, Serbs, Muslims – they had lived alongside one another and one’s nationality or religion wasn’t an issue. The war has changed this.

One girl, a refugee who had to flee the violence with her mother, is interviewed while sitting on a blanket in the grass. She tells us about a friend she used to have, her best friend. They used to spend a lot of time together, but now she no longer wants to see her because she is a Serb, and Serbs killed her father. It doesn’t matter that her friend didn’t actually kill her father. It’s the nationality that counts, and she can no longer be friends with Serbs. The selection of interviews shows that the war has created a rift where once used to be a multicultural community.

“Every shepherd knows what’s good and what’s bad, but the governments don’t know this.”

Geyrhalter makes us listen to the simple people, those who were used as pawns and who lost everything. One woman tells us that she has lost 16 members of her family, her husband has lost 17. The people the director speaks to have lost their house, their job, friendships. They have lost limbs. They are no longer the same person. One boy we get to know hasn’t been to school for almost four years. We meet a woman who leaves the house for the first time in four years to see how the streets look like. It is a sad walk. There is little else but rubbles and destruction. Ruins everywhere you look. Geyrhalter films the woman from behind, allowing us to see the landscape of destruction which she sees.

There is no love after Dayton.”

The Year after Dayton is a film about a huge sinkhole which has opened under the feet of people and which has sucked in everything that life had to offer before the war. Dayton challenges the way we speak about film. I, too, have said earlier that the film was about something. Everything – painting, literature, music, film – is always about something. Or so we have learned. But Dayton is about the opposite. Nothing isn’t an adequate word in this context, although what we see in the film is essentially what has remained after the war, which resembles nothing the people had known before. Nothing remains, and it is this nothing that the film speaks about. It is not just loss that is expressed in the film. There is a deep sense of this sinkhole, a sort of anno zero. The lengthy interviews, a trademark of Geyrhalter, give voice to an emotional void; a numbness that feels like resignation. Life continues, must continue. Yet one can sense change. What we see through Geyrhalter’s camera is the first generation implicated in the conflict. What we can sense, on the other hand, is the struggle of those who come afterwards, those who have to make sense of this brutal legacy.

As with Pripyat and Elsewhere, The Year After Dayton leaves one with an almost bitter aftertaste, caused by several questions at once: what’s next? What has since happened to those we have come to know? Is the memory of the war kept alive? What does the next generation do with this dark past? What remains today, over twenty years after the release of the film?

Happy 10th Slow Cinema anniversary

This year marks a special anniversary for me. Ten years ago in summer, I watched my first slow film. It was Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), a stunning feast, which blew my mind. I kept looking at my watch not because I was bored, but because I wanted to see just how long this first take would last. Quite remarkable that it has been a decade already. Since The Man from London, which, I later found out, was based on a book by Georges Simenon, I have seen hundreds of slow films. Not all of them have made it onto my blog, for lack of time, or frankly for a lack of space because I started my blog only three years after my first slow-film experience.

Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang – these were the big names when I started. I came comparatively late to the oeuvre of Pedro Costa, and I still need to catch up with all of his films. But overall, those four directors used to be the core of what was considered to be Slow Cinema at the time. There were others, of course. Abbas Kiarostami, or Theo Angelopoulos. Chantal Akerman was always a bit on the side, because she was the only woman director talked about. Slow Cinema certainly was a male field. The term was coined by a man, the directors were almost exclusively male, and whenever I did see a slow film in cinema or went to a conference, I felt rather strange as being one of only a handful of women. In fact, my work on Slow Cinema has made me become utterly aware of my being a woman, especially when my book proposal was rejected with the reason of the subject not fitting into the publisher’s portfolio, only for them to accept a book on the same subject by a man.

But apart from having me made aware of who I am and where I come from, Slow Cinema had for me something exciting about it. Why? Because it was a sort of genre, or movement, that I more or less grew into. Slow films, or slower-than-the-usual films have always existed, yet it became “a thing” only in the 2010s, once Jonathan Romney published his Sight & Sound piece about the increase of cinematic slowness in films. It felt as though I was witnessing something in-the-making. I still remember the first festival dedicated to slow films. The AV festival in the UK dedicated a whole weekend to Slow Cinema, with a mini retrospective of Lav Diaz’s films. This was where I saw my first ultra-long film, which much later became my main interest because the length not only created an entirely new film experience for me. It also allowed me to see films in a different way, not just as a purely horizontal narrative, but as something that can take its time to get to the bottom of things.

When I did my Phd from 2012 to 2015, debates about and around Slow Cinema tended to become heated. On the one hand, you had devoted followers. On the other, there were people who hated Slow Cinema and they were the ones who advocated the idea of boredom in the context of slowness. “I’m not going to the cinema to get bored.” The debate on Slow Cinema highlighted what most people expect of cinema to be: a form of entertainment that is used to numb problems, pain, concerns – if only for two hours. I believe that the rejection of slow films not only stems from its rejection as a form of entertainment. It is the rejection to see, a rejection of our human condition.

Slow Cinema also showed the nasty business of film criticism, with certain critics leaving the auditorium early and then ripped a film into pieces (which you can’t do with slow films until you have seen the whole film), and with critics who haven’t even seen a certain film they were reviewing. There were books hastily published, which didn’t even try to understand the movement as something that goes beyond a rejection of modernity’s speed. All of a sudden, those who never bothered with the field had a chapter published. If you wanted to be on top of things as a film scholar, you had to join the band waggon.

I believe that Slow Cinema has given me an insight into more than I had bargained for. In the end, the heated discussion died down as quickly as it had begun. Paul Schrader announced the death of Slow Cinema not so long ago. This shows nothing else than his lack of understanding of the genre. It may well look as though Slow Cinema is in decline. Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang have retired. Chantal Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami have died. The written output is decreasing.

If one wasn’t actively involved with it almost daily, one could easily agree with Schrader. But this would be a mistake. With the rush over slowness coming to an end (yes, this joke is totally intentional), Slow Cinema can finally be. Maybe directors can soon even do Q&As without being asked the age-old question as to why their films are so slow. They can just talk about the content of their films. Now is the time when some quality writing, some quality analysis can emerge from the silence and the stillness that is slowly beginning to wrap around slow films. It’s no longer about making a quick comment on something that is at odds with our modern times. It is about feeling it, and putting it into perspective.

And we will have ample time to do this, as Slow Cinema is everything but dead. Wang Bing has become one of the most prolific directors in recent years. Nikolaus Geyrhalter continues to investigate the world. Shengze Zhu has just won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam. Jacqueline Zünd seems to become a new female force in Slow Cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is treading new grounds in Colombia. Aleksandra Niemczyk is probably one of the most promising new talents. Michela Occhipinti has premiered her new film at the Berlinale. Bi Gan is making himself a name in the field.

The future couldn’t be brighter, precisely because the public debate has died down. While others declare Slow Cinema dead, I personally am convinced that we are entering a new promising phase, which could even become a sort of golden age for slow films. Let’s see what there is to write for me in 2029!

Til madness do us part – Wang Bing (2013)

It was difficult to find time for writing another review. I have been asked to write an essay on Wang Bing for Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which programmed an artist focus on the Chinese director. I am also contributing to a French-language edited collection on Lav Diaz, and have been offered to write a book on Slow Cinema. Writing spreads out, and the blog is, at the moment, not the only platform I need to take time for. If posts come at a slower rate than usual, you know why that is the case.

After the first hour or so of Wang Bing’s ‘Til madness do us part (2013), I knew that I didn’t want to write a review of the whole film. When the director introduced Ma Jian, who had been hospitalised for five months at the time of filming, I knew that I wanted to focus on this specific character. There is a lot just in the first quarter of the film alone. The images alone say so much. The behaviour of those hospitalised, some for over a decade, deserve a separate study. The different backgrounds of those hospitalised, too, deserve a separate study. Madness is such a rich film, disconcerting without a doubt, but this very film says perhaps more about the director’s country than any of his other films.

My main interest has long been the representation of trauma and the aim at representing a sort of concentrationary universe through the use of time (duration), and interaction between absence and presence, life and death. I wrote quite a bit about it in my PhD thesis, which you can download from the British Library. In my thesis, I analysed the ways in which Lav Diaz created a concentrationary universe in his films, in particular in Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). I argued, contrary to available literature, that the concentrationary doesn’t need an actual camp or a prison as a framework. The concentrationary is first and foremost based on a specific experience of time and space.

In Wang Bing’s Madness, you have the nature of the concentrationary right in front of your eyes without the director needing to create a particular mix of aesthetics in order to evoke it. Only a camera was needed, straightforward shots of inmates of a mental hospital, inmates whose reason for their being there is not always evident. Some men we come across – and this is striking because the film focuses on the male population of the institution – certainly struggle with their mental health. Some may be autistic, some violent. Some cannot shoulder a normal life on their own. Others seem perfectly normal, and, seeing this film in 2019, makes you wonder about the real reason for their stay. I’m thinking in particular of one Uighur, who, in one scene, is filmed while following his traditional prayer routine. Perhaps, the man would have gone unnoticed six years ago. Perhaps he could go unnoticed even today. Yet, with China ramping up their persecution of Uighurs and deporting them to concentration camps for “re-education”, Wang Bing’s temporary focus on this young man poses questions about the reasons for his internment. Was the internment in mental hospitals the beginning of concentrating the Muslim population? Was this young man there simply for his religious beliefs?

But let me return to the man I mentioned above: Ma Jian. A young man, who, in the first part of the film, reminded me of a nervous lion inside a cage waiting to be let out. Jian has a tendency to violence, although the question is whether he had been violent before his internment, or whether violence became a means for expressing his frustration with his being locked up. This is the first element one notices: in no way does this mental hospital look like one. Except for handcuffs, which, to be fair, do come into use here and there, the hospital has everything of a prison, including the barred doors. It’s nothing more than a building made of cold concrete with rooms which up to six people share at once. The bars along the hallways certainly prevent suicidal inmates from jumping off their balcony, but, as a viewer, it gives one a permanent feeling of being locked up.

Jian is a fascinating character, and I believe that he is autistic. His reasoning, his monologues (or even dialogues with Wang Bing), show his intelligence. He is fully aware of what’s happening around him and he is also aware of his not being in the right place. “How the fuck did I end up like this?” he asks. He seems sleepy, almost drunk, which could be the effect of medication they give him to calm him down, to sedate him.

“What kind of life is this?”

“The pain doesn’t make you want to live. How many lives I have? Nine!”

There is a lot going on in his head. Ma Jian is the character that touched me most in the entire film. At the time of filming, he had been interned for five months. When we see him first, we don’t know why he is there and for how long he will have to stay there. The immediate concern, from my side, was what will happen to this fragile character in an environment like this. It’s not at all about living, it is about surviving and following your basic needs. One man, struggling to keep on his feet, gets out of bed in one scene, stumbles out of the room into the hallway and pees right there. He didn’t go to the toilet. It didn’t matter. Life is nothing other than basic needs. The man has become a muselmann.

Nothing really matters in this hospital. The inmates live outside of time. They have fallen out of time, as David Grossman would describe it in his book on trauma. There is little to keep the patients busy. Most spend their time in bed, regardless of the time of the day. They are vegetating, and that often for years. Ma Jian attempts to fight against this state. He runs. He takes off his jacket, jumper and shirt and starts running. Wang Bing follows him, a magnificent long-take that, I believe, is the best scene in the director’s oeuvre. It’s spontaneous, it’s life and fight, it’s pulsating. It’s a rebellion. It’s a “no” to everything.

“This is a dead end. This sucks, how can anyone live like this? Come on, kill me. You could even butcher me like a cow or a chicken.”

One of the main characteristics of the concentrationary system: an increase in the death drive. But suicide is prevented, through bars and empty rooms. There is no escape from this degrading situation. Agony is extended. Frustration grows. There is no other possible end than madness in this hospital. ‘Til madness do them part. There is something about Wang Bing’s choice of film titles that strikes me every time I see another film of his. How fitting can a title be, how much can it reinforce every single frame that we see? I’m still wondering what has happened to those people in the last six years. Are they still there? Have some been released? Just how many have lost their minds?

And then there is this echoing title. Until madness do us part. Me and the people I have followed for four hours.

A Yangtze Landscape – Xu Xin (2017)

There are films, which I’m grateful for. Grateful for being able to watch them, grateful for being able to write about them. Grateful for being able to experience them. There are those films that go deep without trying too much. Films that show the ordinary in their ordinariness, in their simplicity, and which tell a million stories about who we are and why, about what is happening around us and why, what consequences there will in future, and sadly, about how little we can do about it.

Xu Xin’s A Yangtze Landscape (2017) is one of those marvellous films, which made me want to stop it several times in order to process the images in front of my eyes as well as the images in my mind. A Yangtze Landscape is not only a beautifully shot film, it also conjures a number of images, thoughts, and emotions that I struggled to digest all at once. Something that Xi Xin clearly demonstrates is that there is a strong documentary movement present in China, which goes against the official party narrative, a movement that looks beyond propaganda, beyond imagined greatness and heroic plans. It looks at the reality without commenting on it. The camera records the invisible, the silenced and the silent. What directors like Wang Bing and Xu Xin show, won’t end up in history books, or in any books for that matter. If it wasn’t for them, the people they meet would fall into oblivion; forgotten, silenced, expropriated.

A Yangtze Landscape is a journey in many ways. We move along the river Yangtze, the longest river in Asia with its over 6,000km in length. It’s an astounding river that is not only an ecosystem in itself. It is also a symbol of the exploitation of resources, of the creation of man-made projects, state projects in the name of the party, which displace hundreds of thousands of people. Fast progress by all means possible. On his way along the river, on boats, ships, filming the vastness that alludes to an open sea, Xu Xin stops here and there. He literally holds the forward, horizontal progression and dives into vertical storytelling. It is this vertical exploration that questions Chinese progress, that not simply films it, but that investigates its effects.

It is also this vertical exploration that made me think just how important filmmakers like Xu Xin and Wang Bing are, both directors looking at those people who are being left behind by a grand project that, officially, has no victims. Xu Xin shows us people whose stories are never told. They often reminded me of Wang Bing’s Man With No Name or Till Madness Do Us Part. The people we see are disabled, mentally above all, but also physically, the latter, for one man, being a result of having protested against the damaging of his fisher net by big ships. His hands were mangled, he can no longer earn a living. This elderly man, sitting outside overlooking the river with his mutilated hands…what a powerful message in a film that quietly inserts written words to inform us about accidents, suicides and state intervention.

The gloomy greyscale landscapes, almost all of them man-made, speak of lifelessness, and are juxtaposed with the movements of Xu Xin’s camera on board a ship (or does he travel on several ships?). Here again, as in many other slow films, we witness a push-and-pull between life (animation, movement) and death (stillness). The massive projects along the Yangtze river have their advantages for some people, but mean the loss of an entire identity for others, sometimes of lives. This clash, highlighted throughout the film’s over two-hour running time, is aesthetically intensified through Xu Xin’s use of sound.

It’s the sound, or rather the deafening noise of a firework display from Chinese New Year, which connects several scenes in the film. The sounds clearly oppose the images. There doesn’t seem to be a link at all. What the sounds do, on the other hand, is they introduce a degree of disorientation. They may not support the images as such, but they support the mental state of the people we see, the disorientation felt by those who were displaced, the staggering changes, even invasions, of man-made structures. And with that, Yangtze is not only a Chinese film. It not only speaks about the country’s modern development.

Instead, it is also a film about Man’s anthropocene era. It is Man’s era, an era in which we have reached total dominance over nature, an era in which we irreversibly steer towards our downfall, our extinction. Yangtze reminded me of Norbert Elias’ speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. His argument has, of course, nothing to do with film, but with the way we treat our surrounding, and, with that, ourselves.

How come that we force scientific progress in order to dominate nature? How come that we try to explain everything in order to make life less dangerous? How come that, at the same time, we seed hostility, resentment, inequality between people which will inevitably lead to conflict and war? Xu Xin’s film is a very good example of this specifically human problem. Yangtze is a film about creating a (state) hegemony, a superiority that aims to remove its opponents, but which, in the long run, will not stifle conflict. What Yangtze shows in its often sublime shots is power, the thirst for power that has no limits.

But Xu Xin hides this point well. It’s not overt and needs to be looked out for. Yangtze is not so much a film about landscapes and about the longest river of Asia. It is much more complex than it looks at first. It is a statement about us. Xu Xin uses frames that are relatively open, giving us the space to think through different possible meanings of what he shows. In that, he differs from Wang Bing, who tends to use tight frames. Tight frames are always a means to evoke suffocation, making it clear to the viewer that there is pressure from the outside. Xu Xin, on the other hand, leaves things open.

In the end, what remains from A Yangtze Landscape is a bitter aftertaste. The film is a mixture of stunning beauty, and utter poverty and oppression, which some people escape from by killing themselves. There is a contemplative journey juxtaposed with violent imagery. The back and forth creates a truly powerful film about 21st century China and about our human condition.

The spirit of absence

I have long been fascinated by the power of absence. I hadn’t known that this was one element that drew me towards Slow Cinema until I saw my first of a number of Lav Diaz’ films, which so clearly play on the nature of the unseen, the present absence. More and more I also realise that my attraction towards this ghostly aesthetic probably stems from several holes in my family history, which I’m now seeking to clear up. There is always a reason for one’s attraction to a piece of art, or a film, and often one isn’t aware of the underlying reason for being emotionally moved by something.

The fascinating aspect of absence, which, to me, is related to the element of space, is that it distorts our perception of time. In many ways, time appears to pass slower, in extreme situations perhaps even in slow motion. There are various reasons for “holes” in our life narrative. Absence is always connected to a loss of something, and this can take different forms. Death is probably the one we can all identify with, and the days and weeks after having lost a loved one always feel different. Time has a different meaning than before. There is a before and an after.

I have long been an admirer of the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman, whose work seems to overlap with my own more often than not, and the further I move through his work, the more I see just how much value his books and essays have for Slow Cinema. Didi-Huberman is not an expert in cinema, which would perhaps rule him out for a lot of people because he just doesn’t know the field. Interestingly enough, it is probably precisely because he is writing from several vantage points – philosophy, art, history, and yes, cinema – that allows him to see things clearly, to take a step back, and to introduce new ideas. Or to simply open our eyes to what’s really in front of us.

One would not necessarily pick up a study on the Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani for an informed reading on Slow Cinema. But Didi-Huberman’s in-depth focus on “air, dust, traces, and haunting”, as indicated in the book’s subtitle (Génie du non-lieu – Air, poussière, empreinte, hantise), is exactly what one should pick up for a better, or even new understanding of the uses of absence in slow films. I have long used art books for my work on Slow Cinema, and there is a lot of remarkable material that many people, especially academics who think only in their own field, have overlooked. Claudio Parmiggiani is an exceptional artist, whose work focuses on absence, silence and fragmentation. Ignoring everything I have read, looking at Parmiggiani’s pieces online conjures feelings of loss, of pain, of longing, but also of searching and hoping.

The power of time in form of patience, desire and waiting, Didi-Huberman writes, can never exist without an event, an action, that tears it up. There is nothing like a homogenous forward movement of time. There is a persistent alternation between calm and shock. This shock, as I have argued above, usually comes about through the loss of something or someone. A loss is always traumatic, like when you thought, in your childhood, that your dad really stole your nose when he made this weird finger movement in front of your face. You’re shocked, you cry. The calm disappears. The alternation between the power of time in form of slowness and its shock moments can be found in several slow films, but is most visible in the films of Lav Diaz, whose narratives live of this back-and-forth, especially his six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012).

There is this famous opposition in the works of Roland Barthes: what is and what has been. Parmiggiani, on the other hand, works on what remains. Barthes’ has been is absent, but continues to haunt the present. Parmiggiani shows the residues. He creates a picture of this haunting absence in the form of dust, or imprints. He makes it palpable, brings it out into the open. Didi-Huberman argues that dust (poussière in French) has its own time, it doesn’t follow the rhythms we establish throughout our lives. What’s more, dust survives us. It always will. Even though, as Didi-Huberman points out, dust is in permanent movement, it is perhaps the only permanent remnant of everything we do, of everything that our life is and has been. It’s what remains after our death. Dust is temporary and yet permanent. It is in movement, shifting from place to place, and yet remains where it is.

The survival of traces, of dust, of imprints threatens our own survival, Didi-Huberman writes. Is this the reason why we feel uncomfortable about it? Is this why feel haunted, why we try to run away, in whatever way? The nature of slow films reminds us of those traces, and they usually do so by using the off-screen very effectively (and affectively). Parmiggiani’s work is all about the literal meaning of imprints and dust, at least in his magnificent series Delocazione. In effect, I find that he gives an image to what those two elements can also mean, namely memory. Persistent memories, haunting memories, memories that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Memories survive us, and this very survival, this longevity, threatens us and our calm existence. They bring upheaval, pain, change.

This “dust” forms the core of most slow films that I have seen. I have argued previously on this blog that slow films centre around Barthes’ what has been. In fact, after having seen Parmiggiani’s art, I more and more believe that we’re actually speaking about what remains in those films. We’re speaking about remains, residues, dust. We speak about what survives us, what remains after we’re gone. We feel our own impotence of something much larger than us. Do we not?

An Elephant Sitting Still – Hu Bo (2018)

There are good films. There are bad films. There are exciting films, awesome films, overwhelming films. There are also underwhelming films, those that are total junk and a complete waste of time. There are those exclamations like “wow!” or “no, no, I don’t believe this!”. Maybe even something like “best film of the year for me!”. And then there is Hu Bo’s first and only feature film An Elephant Sitting Still, which he had completed in late 2017 before he committed suicide. There is no word or expression in the three languages I speak that would help me express what I feel about this film.

There are films that make you interested in film, and you pick it up as a study subject at university. Or you pick up a camera yourself. There are films that touch you deeply. Films that make you cry, make you laugh. People sometimes speak of emotional rollercoasters. And then there is An Elephant Sitting Still, which makes me want to stop watching films because I don’t want to stain what I have seen with other films. I would like to keep this film as the last film I would ever see because it is so rich, so pure, so deep.

We are all looking for something in life. You might not be aware of it until you find the one thing that you had been looking for. I have been looking for An Elephant Sitting Still. My now ten years in film, especially in slow film, on a quest to find the answer to something I haven’t even asked a question about, have found what I seem have been unconsciously looking for. And this something doesn’t have a word. Or a feeling. It’s something deep inside me.

Milan Kundera wrote a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, later adapted to the big screen. The Unbearable Weight Of Being – this is what Hu Bo captures. The weight of living, of breathing, of surviving, or trying to. The weight of our times. Chantal Akerman always wanted us to feel time. Hu Bo wants us to feel the weight of it. The calculated stillness in numerous extended long-takes functions like the weight of an elephant, several tons that crush you underneath its feet. You fight, but what do you fight for if there is no alternative?

The time spent on fighting the agony, on lifting the weight of time, only adds to the feeling of hopelessness. Hu Bo’s characters struggle with the existential question of what their life is worth. This isn’t a truly pessimistic look at life. It is, rather, an existential look at our times, at our stillness in the face of time.

Hu Bo’s moving images are drained of energy, of colour. The film itself is tired, but uses its last bit of energy on telling its characters’ stories. There is resistance, yet not enough in the face of an overwhelming external and invisible force. Every hour spent with the characters feels like an entire life. It is not just the weight of time that drains the characters. It is their anger, often contained, swallowed, until the last straw break’s the camel’s neck. Then, verbal and physical violence becomes omnipresent, but only briefly, often in the off.

There is a boiling point which the film is headed towards. Not a climax, followed by a denouement. An Elephant Sitting Still is eternal. It is our film, our malaise of trying to make something out of our lives in an increasingly hostile world in which we millennials are the first generation to feel the brutality of this new age in which it is difficult enough to survive and even more difficult to live.

Life as an eternal tragedy. Life as an eternal struggle. For those who live in the here and now, the film becomes an expression of their pain without ever trying to make us feel sorry. Without ever trying to make us cry. Wang Jin, an elderly man who faces the fate of spending the rest of his days in a nursing home, says towards the end: “by not going (elsewhere), you learn how to live with it here.”

Elsewhere is always close. We see one character, up close, and another blurred in the background. Elsewhere. The dream of something better than this. A dream that keeps us going, crawling almost, with the few resources we have left. And yet, Hu Bo’s Elephant is not hopeless or worthless, as the film’s characters think they are. Elephant is the one reason why all of this is worth it.

Endnote: If you expected an in-depth review of the film, I’m sorry that I have disappointed you. The experience of Elephant is special. I have thought for a long time that I shouldn’t write about it at all. I don’t want to talk about it either. Elephant is inside me, and only I have the key to it. Never in my life have I had such an experience, but, as I have said above, all of the struggles in my life were worth it if it meant discovering such a film at some point in my life.

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.