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.