This is one of several movie suggestions written by students in the Chinese-Language Cinemas class of Winter 2019 (CHIN 3050/FILM 3350). For this “Playlist Project,” students looked for a film of interest not seen in class, watched and researched it, and wrote up their recommendation. More viewing suggestions will be posted each day leading up to the beginning of the new term.
Review written by Genevieve Oliver
Kaili Blues (Lu Bian Ye Can) was Gan Bi’s directorial debut, released in 2015. It is a Beijing based production filmed in Mandarin, though it also has a few short sequences in Guizhou Miao as it takes place in rural villages in the Guizhou Province. The film follows a country doctor from Kaili as he embarks on a journey to find his nephew, as per his late mother’s wishes. His partner at the clinic, an older lady, also tasks him to find her former lover, giving him a photograph as guidance. As he travels between misty, isolated villages, the distinctions between past, present, and future seem to dissolve, and Gan Bi’s immerses his storytelling in a non-linear dreamscape of floating images. The film is guided by an opening quote from the Diamond Sutra, the most important Sutra of Buddhism, that diagnoses an element of the human experience that causes suffering: “it is impossible to retain a past thought, to seize a future thought, and even to hold on to a present thought.” Gan Bi’s style of visual storytelling echoes those words on every level, evading all conventions of didactic blockbuster narrative conventions, fluidly drifting between memory to reality. There has not historically been a heavy presence of arthouse, aesthetically focused, independent cinema in China, with a market more focused on conventional genre film; for this reason, film theorist Li Yang describes this film as being a constituent of a “new independent cinema” movement taking place in China since 2010 (Yang, 2018). Quietly creeping forward elliptically through entrancing silences and implied meanings with a remarkable visual precision, Gan Bi reflects on memory and trauma in a film that blooms into something more than the sum of its parts. Nick Schager states succinctly in his review for Variety: “led by performances imbued with barely concealed sorrow, regret and longing to come to terms with that which has been lost, ‘Kaili Blues’ affords a view of people, and a nation, caught in between a haunting yesterday and — as implied by the film’s conclusion — a hopeful tomorrow” (Schager, 2016).
Li Yang describes China’s ‘new independent cinema’ as striking a balance between not overtly criticizing the state, not pandering to the market, and most importantly, a new sense of self in which “the periphery and the center are no longer static players trapped in a binary stalemate; they are immutable forces locked in ever-changing forms of conflict and compromise” (Yang, 2018). From this non-divided, fluid self comes a new vantage point from which to see Chinese society. I want to expand upon Yang’s claims of the ‘new independent cinema’ in conversation with Yomi Braester’s article “The Sectral Return of Cinema: Globalization and Cinephilia in Contemporary Chinese Film”. Braester argues that the rise of the CGI heavy blockbuster in China is “controversial mainly because of its complicity with globalization, as it encourages spectatorial consumerism, disregards local film practices, and flattens historical perspective” (Braester, 29). The globalization of the film industry engages in an erasure of collective memory, and so those taking a cinephilic perspective that sees the potential for cinema to rise through layers of collective amnesia and ideological repression regard it as a moral duty to “reaffirm cinema’s historical role, both by turning to a localized film history and by reasserting film’s indexicality as the foundation of bearing witness” (Braester, 31). I argue that Gan Bi’s representation of non-linear temporality and entrenchment in ambiguity contributes to creating the non-divided self as well as contributes to the conversations taking place in Chinese cinema about memory and representation. Those ways show that Kaili Blues is both a stunning film on its own, as well as in consideration of how the visuality reflects a distinct situatedness in a ‘new independent cinema’ in China against the globalized, blockbuster-dominated international film industry.
Kaili Blues opens slowly and quietly with a creeping panning shot around a room displaying all of the gritty details of the white room as the overhead light flickers due to the frequency of power outages before the speaking subjects are revealed. The framing often eludes the direct object of the scene, the sources of sounds, or where characters’ eyelines match. At one point, a dirty disco ball hangs directly in front of the speakers, obfuscating the shot, but as later memory flashes show the return of that disco ball motif, it becomes clear that this is a purposeful presence of repressed memory. There is no musical score, but rather the film is guided by the silences, sparse dialogue, and the ghostly presence of train horns. The cinematography begins precise and ambiguous in its capturing; it first seems fairly realistic, except for a few shots that suggest a fluidity between past and present, until a creeping panning shot reveals a train running through the middle of the room. Once the doctor commences his journey to find his nephew, a 47 minute hand-held single take begins. This section echoes what the old conception of independent cinema in China was: stark and gritty documentary features with low image quality focusing on working-class people (Yang, 2018). Once this sequence begins, all temporality loses distinction, and the camera drifts between capturing different subjects loosely connected through a slowly revealed history. Gan Bi offers a unique representation of the experience of the self in time, dissolving the distinction between memory and reality, and evading a didactic tendency in order to allow ambiguity to speak for itself. In those ways I believe Kaili Blues, is valuable in that it represents a new generation of independent Chinese film where there wasn’t previously a heavy presence of arthouse filmmaking that stands against the globalization of blockbuster films, as well as being a beautiful film standing on its own.
Braester, Yomi. “The Spectral Return of Cinema: Globalization and Cinephilia in Contemporary
Chinese Film.” Cinema Journal, vol. 55, no. 1, 2015, pp. 29–51., www.jstor.org/stable/43653484.
Schager, Nick. “Film Review: ‘Kaili Blues’.” Variety, 16 May 2016,
Yang, LI. “The New Filmmakers Redefining Chinese Independent Cinema.” Sixth Tone, 4 June 2018,
IMDb. “Kaili Blues.” IMDb, 23 Mar. 2016, www.imdb.com/title/tt4613272/.
Mai, Nadin. “Kaili Blues – Bi Gan (2015).” The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, 24 Jan. 2019,
Jaworowski, Ken. “Review: ‘Kaili Blues,’ a Dreamy Trek With Otherworldly Beauty.” The New York
Times, 19 May 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/05/20/movies/kaili-blues-review.html.