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.

Day 10 – Krisana (Kelemen)

In some ways, I stick to Bela Tarr. Fred Kelemen, German filmmaker and cinematographer, had been a regular at Tarr’s set. He was cinematographer for his latest and last film, The Turin Horse (2011), for instance, as well as for his 2007 Cannes entry The Man from London. This collaboration between Tarr and Kelemen made perfect sense to me from the minute I watched one of the latter’s film at the Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle last year.

Frost (1994) was a film in a trilogy that showed the characters at the very bottom of dignity. No, actually, they didn’t have dignity anymore. They merely tried to survive somehow, in between alcohol abuse, domestic violence, rape, and other things that can turn life into hell. Which is one thing, Frost demonstrated.

Krisana (Fallen) is, I believe, Kelemen’s first solo project since his 1990s trilogy Frost, Nightfall and Fate. Released in 2005, the film follows a man’s attempt at trying to learn more about a woman, whose suicide he perhaps could have prevented if he hadn’t kept walking on the bridge she planned to jump of. The man looks at her, then turns around and keeps walking, until he hears a splash and a cry for help. But he is unable to find her.

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

The beginning of the film sets the tone, and is very similar to all of Kelemen’s films, and, in fact, not all too different from Tarr’s films. The man calls the police, and when he gets questioned in the backseat of a car, the police man begins a monologue-like rant on suicide and the downfall of society. He argues:

“Man has lost his way. He’s lost himself. Something in him is torn apart. There is an open wound in this society. It’s bleeding. And I’m surprised at those who haven’t done it yet. Not to mention those who are vegetating on the edge, who are living like animals, who are murdering, robbing, and running amok for one more day of life, their bloody life.”

Appropriately, the film is shot in stark black-and-white. I tend to prefer monochrome aesthetics in film, but in this case especially, I don’t think it could have been different. The film treats dark (and often very much neglected) subject in society. A film about despair, vegetating, the downfall of society etc wouldn’t be nearly as effective if shot in colour.

There is also an interesting presence of the night. I have come to find the theme of the night quite interesting. There is something about black-and-white films making use of the night. Perhaps, this is a way to reinforce the darkness. On the one hand, it could denote danger and uncertainty. On the other, it is a definite veil for anonymity and solitude. If there is something terrible we imagine, then we usually link it to the night. There is the suicide in Krisana, a possible murder in The Man from London, a rape in Frost. This all complies with our perception of the night. However, in choosing black-and-white for the entire film, the directors, in this case Kelemen, make a statement.

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

There is darkness in every hour of the day. Just as the policeman said, there are so many people who suffer, but we don’t notice them, until they commit suicide. Only then we start to really care about them. The black-and-white aesthetics – in Kelemen’s but also in Tarr’s films – bring exactly this to the front, in combination with their themes. The same is true for Lav Diaz’s films.

I would say that there is a group of filmmakers who use specific colour aesthetics to comment on going-ons in society. I find this to be a neglected field in the context of Slow Cinema. There is always talk about the long-takes, and the mundane activities they are representing. But there is a huge lack of detailed analysis of aesthetics (that’s what I’m here for!).

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

One last thing: Krisana appears to be a blueprint for the cinematography for The Man from London. One scene in particular reminds me of it; the circling of the camera around two characters sitting in a pub and talking to each other. Kelemen has perfected it a little two years later, but you can pretty much see why The Man from London turned out the way it did. Besides, it always reminds me of how important cinematographers are. We tend to celebrate directors for their work. At the same time, we forget that some other people, like the cinematographer, have a huge stake in the production of films, too.