2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – KAILI BLUES
Bi Gan’s first feature Kaili Blues is a mind bender road movie where every scene exists in the boundary between real and fantasy.
The movie is set in the director’s native town Kaili, a small city in China home to the Miao people, a minority group in China. The main character is Chen (played by Yongzhong Chen) a medical practitioner and ex-convict who works in a small clinic with an older woman. Chen decides to honor his dead mother’s wish and find his lost nephew, Weiwei, and find his medical partner’s old lover. After he embarks on his journey, the title “Kaili Blues” shows up, shortly after the 30 minute mark (much like how in Blissfully Yours (2002) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul the opening credits roll at the 45 minute mark).
On route to the town where he believes his nephew will be, Chen passes through the village Dangmai where past, present, and future time coexist. Chen encounters his lost nephew who now drives people around on his junky motorcycle, and then Chen’s dead wife who is now working as a barber; neither character recognize Chen. This sequence begins on the railroad tracks that lead to Dangmai with Chen riding into the town with time-out-of-joint Weiwei (or Weiwei prime?) until his nephew drops him off to get a haircut. The camera leaves Chen and follows Weiwei and other characters until finally looping back to Chen who performs with a band. All of this is filmed in a 40 minute unbroken take that dramatizes the time-loop aspects of narrative by literally looping around space with the camera.
After Chen leaves Dangmai, he locates the young Weiwei but doesn’t make contact. Instead he meets with a group of traditional Miao musicians who might know the lost lover Chen was tasked to find as well. The last shots of the movie are of a moving train (the most engrossing sequences of the film were of movement) with a chalk drawing of clock showing time move forward. Chen presumably returns to Kaili on this train and it is unclear whether Chen fulfilled his quest.
Kaili Blues is without a doubt a perplexing movie that pays little attention to its plot and much more to its setting. Throughout, Bi uses voice-over that recites poetry or Chen’s inner-monologue and stages nearly every scene so that it is unclear whether we are watching a dream sequence or real events in the fictional space. This unresolved tension is what makes Kaili Blues so unique and captivating. It reminds me of the Weerasethakul’s magical realist movies on the one hand but also the essay tradition of Chris Marker, the most recent example of that tradition being The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012) by Joao Pedro Rodriguez and Joao Rui Guerra de Mata. Bi’s camera work is unconventional because it appears to follow whatever it wants, irrespective of the dramatic logic of the scene (hence why the plot is less emphasized compared to the space the characters occupy). This makes Kaili Blues feel like a travelogue of the various locations Chen visits on his quest to find Weiwei. The camera feels less complicit in staging action than it is in simply documenting reality, which goes a long way when Bi is trying to tear down the boundary between the real and the fantastic, in a similar way that Alexander Sokurov did with Days of Eclipse (1988).
However, Bi’s work in his first feature is not derivative. His use of space, time, objects and landscapes, and camera movement feel entirely his own and service the dreamlike story he is telling in Kaili Blues.
Kaili Blues plays once more at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Thursday, October 6th at 1 pm at the Downer Theatre. Tickets and further information can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website.