A quietly radical style of filmmaking is presented by 26 year-old writer/director Bi Gan in Kaili Blues. Unfolding like a fantastic dream, with its ethereal characters floating against hazy mountain terrain, this hypnotic, visually rich creation also unveils a dazzling storyline.
Chen (Yongzhong Chen) is a former inmate and doctor who wasn’t there for his mother when she passed away. But his brother, Crazy Face (Lixun Xie), was—often reminding Chen while threatening to sell his own son, Weiwei (Feiyang Luo), Chen’s nephew, to whom he’s grown quite attached. Gambling and playing pool with his shiftless friends, Crazy Face ignores Weiwei, who is given to tracking time by drawing clocks and watches, as do others that appear later in the film.
After learning that Crazy Face has sent Weiwei to Zhenyuan, Chen sets off to find him. But first, he’s asked by his colleague to present a shirt and mix-tape to her sick, elderly friend, someone she shared a history with during the Cultural Revolution. Earlier, the two doctors revealed their similar dreams to each other, the colleague dreaming of her dead son; Chen, of his late mother.
Along his trek to Zhenyuan, Chen stops in peaceful Dang Ma, searching for the Miao minority who play an instrument called the Lusheng. He hires a motorcycle driver; then, hitches a ride on a truck. Everyone he encounters takes him a few steps farther into his mystical journey.
Shot like a dreamscape by cinematographer Wang Tianxing, the film features several astonishingly long scenes with no breaks. In one 41-minute stretch, the camera follows a character until they branch off and another takes their place. Climbing endless steps up and down, people enter buildings and walk through them to roads and alleys on the other side.
Considerable symbolism is displayed through the movement of bikes, boats, trucks and trains. In one scene, a rushing train is juxtaposed on a window giving the sense that it’s barreling into the room. There are also shots taken through reflections, like from the mirror of a motorcycle. Just like the picturesque green river that carries the boat that a woman named Yang Yang rides to a public concert, the plot turns in unexpected places but always attentively. Throughout, Chen recites poetry aloud. And, being naturally skilled at picking locks, he’s able to open that which remains closed to others. In Kaili Blues, Chen questions his thoughts and memories, of his life feeling like a dream (or is it his dream that feels like life?).
‘Kaili Blues’ shows June 23 to 26 at Northwest Film Forum. For more info, visit nwfilmforum.org.
Another kind of reality is highlighted in the documentary Gurukulam, a quest into the meaning of life. At an ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, the filmmakers feature several devotees of (the now late) Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Located in a thick forest, the venue (Arsha Vidya Gurukulam) at times looks much too busy to be all that relaxing. For instance, the opening scenes show followers endlessly hacking away at coconuts with machetes. Others pick vegetables, or cook and serve meals, or else clean up around the facility. There seems to be constant motion when there should be more meditation.
Nevertheless, Swami Saraswati is a charismatic, jovial chap and his teachings of the Hindu philosophy, Advaita Vedanta, are fairly straightforward. Even though some of his pronouncements—perception is existence—are fundamental, he is able to laugh at himself. It’s his students who take everything so seriously, like the American woman who came to study for a few months and ended up living there for decades. Another young man seems distressed that his parents don’t understand why he wants to remain at the ashram instead of getting on with his life.
The fussiness of devotees eating, chanting, praying, and performing rituals and chores, is in stark contrast to the times they sit quietly, raptly listening as Swami Saraswati recites the Bhagavad Gita. In those moments, it really does feel like they are “One.”
‘Gurukulam’ screens June 17 at Sundance Cinemas Seattle. For more info, visit www.sundancecinemas.com.
In the narrative Before the Streets, Shawnouk (Rykko Bellemare) is like too many young men in his First Nations community of native Atikamekw; restless and rebellious. In spite of having a strong male role model in his mother’s boyfriend, a tribal sheriff no less, Shawnouk finds himself living on the wrong side of the law. Hanging out with a bad crowd, drinking beers, smoking cigarettes, and playing war in the sand with them, he doesn’t seem to have any goals in life.
His sister (Kwena Bellemare Boivin) isn’t much better. She allows her mother to care for her baby while she gets high with her brother. Unfortunately, their mother seems to be resigned to the fact that she has no control over her own children.
Then, one night, while Shawnouk is out, he meets a stranger who convinces him to help burglarize a supposedly empty house. Unexpectedly, the owner appears just as the two are loading up and Shawnouk has to make a split-second moral decision. Before long, someone lies dead. Running away, Shawnouk meets a girl and her wise mother who tries to convince him to go to the sweat lodge for a spiritual cleansing. Instead, Shawnouk goes home where his mother’s sheriff boyfriend protects him from civilian police and forces him to get a job. But Shawnouk is consumed with guilt and makes a drastic decision rife with consequences.
The first feature for director Chloe Leriche, this film is also the first ever made in the language of Atikamekw spoken by the mostly non-professional actors. Shot on location in three native Atikamekw villages of Quebec, it makes a powerful statement about Indigenous people who stray too far from their cultural roots. Jacques Newashish is especially outstanding as the sheriff who cares too much about his girlfriend’s wayward children.
‘Before the Streets’ screened at SIFF in June.