Film review: Kaili Blues – Bi Gan’s art-house gem blends memories and time

Shot on a hand-held camera, the film plays like it has developed a consciousness of its own

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 12:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 2:25pm

4 stars

It’s easy to guess the giants of cinema who have inspired the 27-year-old Chinese director Bi Gan, whose debut feature signals the arrival of a major talent: Kaili Blues echoes ostensibly with the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wim Wenders (whom Bi has acknowledged in interviews), as well as David Lynch, Alain Resnais, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and others (whom he hasn’t yet).

While the film even shares its Chinese title – Roadside Picnic – with the Russian sci-fi novel that Tarkovsky turned into 1979’s Stalker, it is hardly overwhelmed by those influences. Bi’s art-house gem – set around the city of Kaili, Bi’s birthplace in China’s southwest – is a narrative experiment which intuitively bridges social realism and magic realism to tell a story of great emotional resonance.

Kaili Blues made its mark at Locarno Film Festival 2015

Identity is a fluid concept in Kaili Blues, which tentatively revolves around Chen Sheng (played by Chen Yongzhong), a miserable ex-con who works as a country doctor and moonlights as a poet. When it becomes obvious that his no-good half-brother has sold off his young son, Chen travels to the idyllic village of Dang Mai to rescue his nephew, only to find time and space all jumbled on the journey.

Possibly taking hints from “The Zone”, a sealed-off area in Stalker that allegedly fulfils people’s deepest wishes, Bi’s dreamy road movie confronts Chen with characters who might respectively be his deceased wife and grown-up nephew. In an inspired stroke, the mysterious time loop is captured in a 40-minute long take – shot on a hand-held camera – that plays like it has developed a consciousness of its own.

The film is memorably punctuated with Bi’s poems, recited by Chen in voiceover, but the non-Chinese speaking viewers will be more likely haunted by its musing on the transience of life and the profound regrets that it inevitably brings. Kaili Blues is one of cinema’s greatest discoveries of the year.

Kaili Blues opens on August 25

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