Welfare – Frederick Wiseman (1975)

In past years, several people have pointed out the work by Frederick Wiseman to me, in particular whenever I spoke of Lav Diaz and his rather long (feature) films, which explore the history and trauma of a country and society in depth. I have to admit that now that I have seen my first Wiseman film, I don’t quite see a relation to Slow Cinema the way I feel it, or would perhaps define it (if I had words for it). Nevertheless, there are some specifics that are quite interesting to consider in terms of slow film, perhaps also, yes, in relation to the films of Lav Diaz.

First of all, Welfare is an almost three-hour long documentary. Indeed, this goes against the usual perception of a documentary. There are exceptions like Adam Curtis’ pieces, but overall documentaries (just like feature films) tend to have industry-imposed time limits. Wiseman doesn’t seem to care about this, and this allows him to go into such depth that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Welfare is a long-form documentary that has a scope similar to slow films in that he shows vertical time. You might remember from earlier posts that I spoke about horizontal and vertical time, the former being a simple advancement of the story without going into too much depth. A vertical treatment of a subject is based on the director’s taking his time. It’s about feeling, psychological depth. It’s about the character first, the story comes second. Vertical time is usually something poetic, which you might think isn’t present in Wiseman’s film. And yet, you will find everything that is characteristic of a vertical story treatment.

Welfare places emphasis on those who are seeking help and feel like hamsters in a bureaucratic wheel. In several long-takes – I believe one is even longer than 10 minutes which is unusual for a documentary – he films conversations between those who seek help and those who decide about whether they can eat on that same day, or whether they have a place to sleep. Some conversations, cases, problems, feel endless, repetitive, often painful. But Wiseman keeps filming. He wants to get to the bottom of the pain that is so often forgotten in bureaucratic systems. This is the vertical you can usually only see in slow films. It’s vertical time that comes to the fore and it is because of this vertical time that Welfare has such a strong effect on the viewer. It’s like reading an 800 page novel and you get to know your character in such a way that you really identify with him or her. You know every single trait of that character, you have time to draw parallels between you and him/her, you actually have time to consider what’s happening to the character.

This is Welfare. It’s an 800 page novel. Perhaps it’s not slow, but it’s detailed, focused on individuals who are usually marginalised and forgotten. It’s vertical in its treatment of the subject, or rather subjects. The film is not only about the failing welfare system in America. The documentary shows several other facets of society, amongst them blatant racism. It is a portrait of America in the 1970s, and, perhaps crucially, it is a portrait of America today, because as far as we can gather from news items, very little has changed. The end of the film is quite interesting. It hit me and hurt me. Having lost his comfortable job with an income of $20,000 a year plus more for other work, having lost all his research work (stolen from him), his accommodation, having fallen from a hardworking successful member of society to a homeless man who needs to steal in order to survive, all of this after a stay in hospital and being told afterwards that he would no longer be able to work – this man, this character who sums up everything we have seen in the previous two hours plus, predicts that there wouldn’t be a United States of America anymore at the end of the 1980s if nothing changed. People would leave the sinking ship. It would be interesting to see the same documentary playing out in 2017…

Welfare is not a slow film. This much I can say. Nevertheless, the link to slow films and in particular to films by Lav Diaz, who uses long duration (and cinematic slowness) for an in-depth exploration of an individual’s pain, is clear. What both Slow Cinema and Frederick Wiseman’s work share is the use of vertical time, of duration, in order to get to the bottom of pain, of despair, of injustice; in order to make the viewer feel this pain, despair and injustice; in order to use their films as a cry for help.

Bitter Money – Wang Bing (2016)

I don’t know whether it’s only my perception of it or whether there is indeed a real surge of interest in the films of Wang Bing here in Europe. It is strangely satisfying to see an advertisement in your daily newspaper for the director’s Ta’ang on DVD, followed by the announcement of this year’s dOCUMENTA (Kassel, Germany) that they will host a full retrospective of Wang Bing. And then I browsed aimlessly through the website of French-German TV channel ARTE and what did I find? The director’s new film Bitter Money.

As, for instance, West of the TracksBitter Money is an impassioned look at the life of workers in China. To see these two films almost side by side is a very interesting matter. Tie Xi Qu as well as Coal Money are about (quite literally) the dirty work: extracting coal, manufacturing metal sheets and electric cables in factories that are below any health and safety standard. Especially West of the Tracks, to me, showed the older generation. There were several men in their late forties, early fifties who hoped that their children would have a better future. In some ways, Bitter Money seems like an investigation into whether this hope has materialised.

What Wang Bing’s film shows first of all is the shift in China’s economy. Bitter Money is a film about China’s textile industry with a particular emphasis on small private sewing rooms. The director does not explore the conditions in the main clothing factories, but focuses instead on the many private sewing room owners and those who work for them. As is common practice with Wang Bing, he singles out a few workers and follows them throughout the film’s two-and-a-half hours running time. It starts in a claustrophobic room in which several young people sit together. It appears to be one of the girl’s last evening at home, as she is taken to the city for work. Wang Bing keeps all of this anonymous. I’m not sure whether he ever mentions the name of the teenage girl, or whether he wants her to stand in, anonymously, for all the other young people who migrate away from the Chinese countryside in order to look for work.

The girl previously said that she had changed her age on official papers, which seems to be doable in some parts of China but not in others. It’s likely that she did this in order to be considered as eligible for work. Situations are dire in the countryside and people do whatever it takes in order to earn money. The girl is making her way to the city first by bus, then by train. Wang Bing remains for a very long time in this train, a night train it seems, filming the people sleeping, exhausted from the previous part of their journey. Others play cards, but overall it’s quiet in the train. It startled me when the people arrived in the city (which is also kept anonymous, if I remember correctly) and the sound level increased immensely. You get a real sense of the bustling life in the city; the people, the cars, the honking, the sheer speed with which everything is happening.

Initially, Wang Bing follows a group of three young people, amongst them the teenage girl and her cousin. He stays with them for a little while, while they move into their new home – an austere room with only the very basics with the busy street right outside the window (“This is what it’s like when you work far from home”, one of them says) – before he shifts his focus away from them. The story of the teenage girl who changed her age to make it to the city for work merges with the story of a thirty-something woman who fled her abusive husband. I believe that this man, whom we later see hitting his wife, is the only one who is clearly named throughout the film. Wang Bing singles him out and thereby forces the viewer to recognise the man whenever he pops up in the director’s frames.

And this he does when his wife comes to see him in his shop (“their shop”, as she insists) in order to ask him for money. The marriage had been problematic since the beginning, but it boiled over when she invested in a small textile company. Now, her body is covered in bruises. Wang Bing remains outside of the shop and films the violent encounter between husband and wife, the former repeatedly threatening that he would kill her, that he would skin her alive. He repeatedly grabs her by the throat and hits her, all the while Wang Bing keeps recording. Ethics are a thoroughly interesting subject in the director’s films, and it would need another post in order to explore this in more detail. Suffice to say here that I did wonder when (if at all) Wang Bing would have interfered in this lengthy, very uncomfortable scene.

In the meantime, the teenage girl’s cousin is returning home, which sets the actual exploration of working conditions in motion. The young man complains about the long working hours – he begins at 7am and works till midnight with no lunch break – and decides that this isn’t a life for him. This is followed by the first extensive sequence showing people manufacturing clothes, seemingly in a normal house, upstairs, with only a sewing machine and pairs of scissors. It’s very rudimentary, and looks almost clandestine. There is one girl in this group of people who doesn’t look older than 14. Indeed, Bitter Money, as mentioned above, shows the young generation more than anything else, and investigates whether they have a better life than their parents had hoped for.

After two-and-a-half hours, I’m not sure I can say that they’re better off. If you look at West of the Tracks, you could say that there are less health hazards in the textile industry, at least in those areas that Wang Bing shows us. However, there is little else that sets those young people off from their parents. Worst of all is, perhaps, that they don’t have a home to go to. The workers live together in austere rooms. Their actual homes are often so far away from the city that they can’t go home without taking too many days off work, which means a huge loss of money. While workers in West of the Tracks seem to be long-standing colleagues who have spent half their lives together, workers in Bitter Money appear lonely. They work together, but they usually don’t speak. It’s about making the most shirts, the most coats during the day. Anything that can distract is avoided. If a worker isn’t fast enough, s/he gets sacked. In this way, there is a persistent change in the work force and it’s not possible to strike up year-long friendships that help the workers through hardships.

What Bitter Money shows is the individual rather than the collective. Compared to the director’s other films I have seen so far, this one looks very polished and quite deliberately edited in order to follow a three-act structure, something I have already noticed in his testimony film Fengming, a Chinese memoir. Bitter Money lacks the spontaneity that West of the Tracks showed, something that made the film unpredictable and that gave you a real sense of witnessing something. Despite my liking the film, I would say that the director didn’t manage to get to the bottom of what’s happening the way he managed it in West of the Tracks, which perhaps is down to the time spent on the subject matter. For both films, he spent over 2 years filming, but the end result is very different: there is a nine-hour piece on the one hand that contains all details of the collapse of an industrial complex, and a two-and-a-half hour film on the other that, to me, is strong, but could be much stronger if it had been given more time to breathe. I begin to wonder whether long running times aren’t best for documentaries, because you know that if a director has filmed for two years and the final product is comparatively short, a lot of material has been cut.

Another Year – Shengze Zhu (2016)

A three hour long film about people eating – admittedly, this doesn’t sound like a must-see film. And it’s not even just three hours of people eating. It’s three hours of long slow takes as well. We’re not exactly speaking of fast food here 🙂

Another Year should, nevertheless, be on your must-see list for this year. It is an essential slow film to watch and is already my slow film of the year. Shengze Zhu draws a portrait of a Chinese migrant family. This is more than just about eating, although, if you are no more than a passive viewer, you could easily think that. I remember the time when I was younger. When my siblings were still home, dinner was always the time when we were together and talked about our day. It wasn’t dinner. It was a social gathering. Yes, we came together over food, but I found that it was more about exchanging our thoughts and feelings than about the actual process of eating.

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Those memories resurfaced when I saw Shengze’s film. The film has a very simple, but effective structure. It is divided into 13 months. Every meal in a certain month is shown in one long-take. In some cases, Zhengfan Yang, the cinematographer – also known for this films Distant and Where Are You Going? – uses medium long to long shots, partly framed by the inside of a house. A thoroughly engaging approach, because it plays with absence and presence.

In a way, Another Year is an extension of Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II, which is all about making dumplings. In Another Year, you don’t see the cooking. It’s all about eating, and, funnily enough, they do eat a lot of dumplings! The kitchen is something that only exists in the off. It exists in the film’s sound, but the director doesn’t go beyond that. What she does make clear – both through off- and on-screen presence – is the absolutely invasive presence of the television, which is running almost all the time. It adds to the already claustrophobic nature of the room where most of the film is set.

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Why did I remember my childhood when I saw the film? Another Year tells the story of a family, which unfolds during dinner time. In January, the father comes home and the mother complains that she cannot stand her mother-in-law. In February, the mother-in-law has a stroke and is only talked about because she’s in hospital. In March, the mother has moved with her two smallest children to the house of her mother-in-law to look after her. And so it goes on. Every month, every meal, tells a new part of the story, which you have to piece together on the basis of the dialogues you hear. You cannot just sit and stare at the screen. Shengze Zhu asks you to be active.

And if you are, then you notice the currents below the surface. Another Year is drawing a picture of a family under pressure. The film is not a picture of happiness. If anything, the film is a portrait of frictions, of arguments, of anger and of impatience. No one in the film seems to be really happy. It often appears as though life is a chore, and yes, the mother does utter this early on in the film: “My God, why is life so hard?” Money is scarce. She has three kids with her husband being at work all day. Towards the end, she actually complains about this, but it is not even clear what she wants because she feels offended when her husband offers to stay home to look after the kids while she goes out to earn money. So what do these characters want?

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The oldest daughter wants new shoes. Then she wants new socks. And new chopsticks are also necessary. There is an almost constant “I want this – I want that” in the film, but because of the family’s poverty, the characters are stuck and do not seem to be able to move forward. This is shown quite literally by the framing, which is predominantly claustrophobic. The camera is often positioned in a small room where the characters eat, sleep, watch TV and play. It seems as though their entire life plays out in the very room we see in front of us. It’s not a surprise that frictions and arguments are almost a daily routine. There is no breathing space. Nor is there any light. I found that the entire film was pretty dark. Natural light was scarce. I’m aware that the family eats in the evening and that in some months there is no more natural light at that time. Yet, I do believe that the lack of natural light is indicative for the family’s misery. The claustrophobic space and the lack of light are enough to get a sense of unhappiness, of frustration, also indicated by a lot of shouting and accusations between the characters. The dialogues are – at least for this point – not necessary. Their mood, their thoughts, they are all visualised by the film’s aesthetics.

Another Year sounds like a pretty simple film, and yes, it is based on a very simple concept. In the end, we see thirteen family meals, although we don’t really see that, because the family never sits quietly together, and eats. They’re often all over the place, especially the young children. But this simplicity, which I have seen so often in other slow films is giving us a complex picture of an unhappy, poor family, and a society that is still haunted by the one-child policy. It gives us an insight into their lives, into their concerns – simply, by being. Shengze records this being, and captures a fascinating view on a modern working-class family in China. A three-hour long must-watch!

Imburnal – Sherad Anthony Sanchez (2008)

If you’re done watching Lav Diaz’s long films and need a film to fix this problem, Sherad Anthony Sanchez’ three-and-a-half hour film Imburnal (2008) may be a good start. I wanted to see the film for a long time, and I have started it twice, I think. But for some reason I never finished watching it. It certainly wasn’t the quality of the film that had stopped me from going ahead.

I remember Diaz mentioning Sanchez in my interview with him; Sanchez as one of the few upcoming great directors in Philippine cinema. I can see why Diaz said this, even though I have only seen one film by him. But there is a feeling, a certain presence of the director, that makes it a very promising work in regards to the future. Imburnal is a rather different view on the Philippines than we know from Diaz’s films. Sanchez does not so much focus on the past and its effects on the present. His film is more an exclusive study of the present condition, with a view to the future. Sanchez focuses on the young; children, teenagers, who spend their free time in sewers. They smoke and drink whatever self-made mix they can come up with, inhale glue, and, seemingly their favourite past-time, have sex with whoever they can find.

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No, the film doesn’t draw a nice picture of the young in the Philippines. But the film is not so much only an image of the director’s country. It uses Filipino youngsters, while – perhaps unconsciously – telling a story of deprived young people all over the world, with little hope for the future, little education, maybe even little ambition. This is one thing in the film: you don’t see any of the characters at school. The film is a portrayal of youngsters in the streets and sewers without their being homeless. It looks like the chosen battleground where the young fool around until they find out what they want to do with their lives.

The dominant theme of sex in the film reminded me of a book I read years ago, which was as worrying as was watching the film. I can’t remember the book’s title, but it was written by someone working for a charity that supports teenagers from deprived families in Germany (yes, we’re speaking about the First World here). What became clear after only a few pages was the teenagers’ obsession with sex. And I’m not speaking of the normal “I need to discover what this is all about” phase. The underlying problem was that they had little else to do. Sex gave them a release from harsh life. It was an escape, a form of entertainment they could get for free. This went as far as 15 year olds with 50 sex partners. I couldn’t help thinking that this was exactly what I saw in Imburnal; the kind of “I’m bored, let’s have sex” type of thing. There’s plenty to say about this, but I want to move on to the aesthetics of the film.

Sanchez has created a rather interesting cinematic journey that does not necessarily make for an easy viewing. He employs long-takes, often beautifully framed. Others, on the other hand, need to be deciphered. He inserts still images, which confused me at times: Is this really a still image or is simply nothing moving in the frame? It’s not as easy as you think! The still images increased the felt slowness of the entire film. And so does the music, a melancholic tune that plays over quite a few scenes. The slow tune wasn’t a necessity, but it serves the mood well and reinforced my sorry feeling for what I saw.

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Sanchez – keen on playing with the viewers’ patience, you can tell – inserted a pause into his film. A literal pause. After about ninety minutes, the film cuts to black. A melancholic tune comes up, and then you sit and wait. And wait. And wait a little longer. I’m not sure how long I stared at the blank screen. Was it five minutes? Seven, perhaps? If I had watched this in cinema, that would have been the point of people leaving the auditorium. That is, if they had not been fed up with explicit sexual imagery of a teenager threesome in the sewers, masturbating guys (no, boys) on top of the extreme long-takes and the on and off use of absolute silence. The use of absolute silence strongly reminded me of Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo CTE. In this film, silence was an aspect of trauma. In Imburnal, I reckon the silence was simply the result of playing with different aesthetics.

I couldn’t figure out why Sanchez inserted the pause, but I sure liked his artistic endeavour. It added a real zen feeling to the otherwise rather unpleasant scenes (context-wise) before and after the break. Imburnal is surely an intimate film, in many ways. Not only in regards to the imagery. At times, the camera switches into a voyeuristic mode, positioning us as perhaps unwanted spectators. And then you can hear the breathing of the filmmaker/cinematographer in some scenes, which made me feel uncomfortable at times. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it felt as though I was too close to the action. In any case, Sanchez is a director to look out for in future. I liked his play with aesthetics and this could have been only beneficial for his future projects.

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.

Day 6 – Colossal Youth (Costa)

I’m back on the European continent, after having made (film) trips to Mexico, the Philippines and China. I’m in Portugal this time, the home of filmmaker Pedro Costa. It is only the second of his films I have seen. The first one was Bones (1997), which I couldn’t quite get through at the time. I can now see, though, what type of slow-film director Costa is.

Colossal Youth tells the story of Ventura, an immigrant in his 70s, who, like many other immigrants, has been relocated to a new housing estate near Lisbon. He appears to live in the past. The present is a confusing structure he cannot seem to handle. He is confused as to where he really lives, I believe: past? Present? In his old slum? In the new estate? For me he is a walking ghost.

Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa
Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa

Similar to Nicolas Pereda from Mexico, Costa merges documentary and fiction. It is often difficult to tell what is scripted and what isn’t. Sometimes there is the strong sense that the camera simply records without the interpretation of the filmmaker. At other times, you can feel the presence of someone behind the camera.

First of all, very obvious, Costa is not a filmmaker who assigns a great role to outdoor spaces, especially to landscapes. This film in particular is set mainly indoors. In parts, it reminds me of the look of Oxhide I, in that we spend a considerable amount of time in very dark spaces, and the only light is of somewhat greenish colour.

There is, however, and interesting contrast in the film. As I already mentioned, Ventura is relocated to a new housing estate. Both the slums and the estate have their own set of lighting and colours. Ventura moves freely between both in order to see people he knows. We therefore switch between darkness (the slums) and brightness (the new estate). While the changing colour scheme seems to be a natural thing – and indeed, it comes in handy – I wonder whether there is a subtle message behind it.

Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa
Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa

I never got the feeling that Ventura feels very comfortable in his new surrounding. It doesn’t mean that I preferred him being and remaining in the slum. But somehow, he appeared to me more natural in his behaviour. So perhaps, while the above mentioned brightness is natural and most likely not intended, we could say that the brightness – the white sterile walls and the bright light – can function as an indicator of where Ventura feels more himself. I’m really not sure about this. It’s merely an idea.

Costa, to my mind, is the only slow-film director who picks up the issue of immigration of former colonised to the countries of their colonisers, in this case Portugal. Portugal is by far not the only country that faces this issue. France has seen similar waves of immigrants, but curiously enough they never appear in film, or not in a way that does not make the audience loath them (moral panics anyone?). There are few films that handle this issue in a sensitive manner, and Costa’s Colossal Youth is one of them.

What he has in common with other slow-film directors is the depiction of loss and poverty. I pointed out earlier that these two are of exceptional significance in Slow Cinema. And his films, too, are in one way or another connected to the Third World, something I also mentioned briefly earlier. Costa is very different (from the filmmakers I study), but he nonetheless shares many characteristics. The themes of poverty and loss are my main interest here. Somehow I think that Tsai Ming-liang and Albert Serra are the only two filmmakers who add a bit of humour to their slow films. Slow Cinema appears to be a very sad film genre!

Day 3 – Oxhide I (Jiayin)

On day three, I have thankfully managed to avoid further motion sickness. Although I cannot say that I have moved into a better environment. Quite the opposite actually. After Alamar, a lovely trip to an atoll reef off Mexico, I ended up in a cramped apartment in China.

Oxhide is, to my mind, a strange hybrid of documentary and fiction. I felt unsure what was scripted and what was complete improvisation. In any case, director Liu Jiayin filmed daily life in the apartment she has lived with her parents. I was often surprised at the way Tsai Ming-liang has so far treated everyday life, and thought that he pretty much got the point. However, Jiayin went a step further and I cannot recall a single film that describes our (specifically their) mundane life so well.

There are two points in this film that interested me. The first was the framing. The slow films I study have as their main aesthetic feature a basis of vastness and nature. The landscape plays a major role, if it isn’t a character in itself (which I think it is in most cases). The framing tends to be loose, which is an interesting fact as loose frames are often associated with freedom for the character, but in the majority of slow films the characters are, in fact, trapped.

Oxhide, Liu Jiaying
Oxhide, Liu Jiayin

In Oxhide, the traditional feature tight framing equals pressure and stress on the character is more valid. It is for me the outstanding aesthetic I took away from the screening. The film was claustrophobic, especially over the course of two hours. There was literally no space. Neither for the viewer nor for the characters. Indeed, the father (who’s the director’s real father; she was filming her real family) says at some point “There’s no room to move freely”.

This also accounts for the viewer. It creates a tense atmosphere, also because we are often forced to witness arguments, and because there’s no free space to take our eyes (and therefore our mind) off things, we’re stuck with watching uncomfortably. Another interesting fact in the same context is the lighting. It always seems to be dark in the flat. I can’t remember having seen a single window in the film, which adds to the feeling of imprisonment.

The second significant thing is the theme of poverty and capitalism, which I recognised in quite a few films, especially in those by Lav Diaz. Jiayin’s parents design, make and sell bags made from oxhide. At the beginning of the film, the dad wants Jiayin to get discount advertisements ready on the computer. We see that he reduces the original price for a bag by fifty percent. The discounts bring in money, but he is unhappy about how he, as the maker and designer of the bags, and as the owner of the shop, has lost control over his business. He says at one point “It’s our shop, our bags – and in the end it’s the customers who set the price”.

Jiayin’s mother argues with him about his stubbornness. He wants to get rid of the discounts, while she argues that people just want cheap prices. For the customer, the shop owner or how the products had been made are of little significance. What counts is a cheap price. It matters little whether the shop owner can live off the money he makes with his own creation. She fears the date their rent is due, which tells us that they are indeed in financial trouble once he has removed the discounts.

Oxhide, Liu Jiaying
Oxhide, Liu Jiayin

It is a general theme that is picked up here. This has been developing for a long time, and it is true that more and more traditional craft makers go out of business. People want cheap prices. This is all they care about. This is also the reason why we see repeated accidents in factories, such as the one in Bangladesh this year.

P.S.: Yes, the screenshots are dark, but so is the film. Gives you an idea of how dark it really was!