Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting V

The second last feature I would like to mention is the use of monochrome aesthetics. It is something that cannot be applied to Slow Cinema as a whole. In fact, the majority of slow films I know were made in colour. However, I initially set out to read Lav Diaz’s films in the light of Chinese painting, and for his work, the reasons behind the use of monochrome aesthetics work perfectly.

The Song period (c 960-1237) was described as the golden age of Chinese painting. Painting was finally accepted as one of the fine arts. It was also the period whose painters focused predominantly on monochrome aesthetics in their depiction of landscapes. There were two schools at the time, the Northern and the Southern School. The latter, in particular, is now known for its use of black-and-white. It was the famous Wang Wei who is quoted as saying: “monochrome is by far superior”. It is a superior, and a different way of seeing. Exactly what Diaz said in an interview with JP Carpio; black-and-white is “a different way of seeing life”.

What can be taken from literature on Chinese painting is, for instance, that black-and-white stood for simplicity. The Song period represented a move towards an even greater simplicity as a whole. Subjects were elemental, i.e. simple and mundane in nature. This is one of the main characteristics of Slow Cinema in general, but Diaz’s films in particular: simplicity. It is not only the cinematic techniques that are kept simple. It is the entire mise-en-scène, the actions by characters, their conversations, even their housings.

Another important factor is the aspect of poverty. Now, poverty goes hand in hand with simplicity in some ways. I have already mentioned the housings of the characters. During my research for one of my chapters, I learned that overall 40% of the population live off less than $2 a day. Diaz explained in an interview (again with JP Carpio), that he could relate to those struggles more as it’s his own background: “I can relate to it in a more truthful way because it’s my culture”. He comes from a poor family of farmers and fishermen. The first diversion of this came with his last film Norte. A film made in colour, which – interestingly – portrays the struggle of the poor against the rich. The use of colour highlights the wealth of the upper class. Black-and-white wouldn’t create a credible picture. You have a similar approach in Béla Tarr’s films, by the way. Think about the particular class of people he portrays in his films…

Lastly, black-and-white supports a focus on the narrative. A focus on the essentials. This ties in once more with the aspect of simplicity. Chinese painters argued that colour would divert the viewer’s attention. Indeed, I personally find black-and-white films more powerful. I don’t get distracted by different colours. I can focus on the very essentials of the film, and I can thus receive all the information as well without its being hampered by changes of colours or colour schemes. Besides, black-and-white supports the idea of universality. It was Béla Tarr who said that his the event in his films could happen anywhere and anytime. It is not a particular thing tied to his native Hungary. Colour would make it easier to identify time and place, whereas monochrome aesthetics (can) leave it open.

Again, this specific feature cannot be applied to all slow films, but mainly to Diaz and Tarr. However, the ideas behind it – simplicity, poverty, focus on narrative – are rather universal for Slow Cinema as a whole.

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…