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Vanishing Points

(2010-04-06 12:46:23)
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1428

cnex

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 The shadow of lost sons haunts Du Haibin’s 1428, an award-winning (Orizzonti Award in Venice) documentary on the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people, rendered millions homeless and turned the Beichuan area into piles of rubble. Echoing Du’s previous works (such as Tielu yanxian [Along the Railway, 2001] San [Umbrella, 2007]), it is shot in hybrid cinéma-vérité style, with his subjects freely addressing and interacting with him. “Some people thought I was working for television. They would spontaneously stand in front of the camera, to tell me that the Chinese people were lucky. When Chinese people talk about the Communist party leaders, I have no way of sorting out what is true and what is false… Some also told me that is was a system of corrupt bureaucrats, but they said so because they had been wronged.” (18) We see an old lady staunchly defending the government on her way to collect an electric blanket, then switching to angry recriminations after it is refused to her. Other addresses are more intimate. While washing clothes in a brook, a woman describes how terribly she misses her dead children. A teenager looking for his missing brother asks Du “Are you filming this?” A butcher interjects: “You and I are from the same generation. You remember how terrible it was in 1979!”

Du went to the wrecked area a few days after the earthquake (originally to see if there was anything he could do to help), then revisited it six months later. As the shooting developed spontaneously, without prior planning, different bits of (contradictory) reality coexist without explanation, judgment nor commentary – conveying an acute sense of chaos: ruins and makeshift shacks; private sorrows and collective responses; the impotent feeling of being pitted against an absurd coalition of government officials, looters and curiously unresponsive (unconscious?) deities.

Opening on a devastated city, 1428 is inscribed within a series of contemporary Chinese films, narrative and documentaries, that have tackled the large-scale demolition currently taking place in the country. (19) The cause (an “act of god”) is different from the government plans of tearing down (chai) and resettling (to build a dam, make room for “urban renewal”, or terminate obsolete factories), but the visuals are the same: bulldozers attacking buildings, demolition workers dismantling walls with picks and axes, stubborn survivors digging through the rubble to salvage what they can. In turn these images echoes other, buried in our subconscious – memories of the wars we have seen on television, or in classic films (John Gavin standing in front of his bombed building in Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die [1958], for example). Whether caused by man or nature, ruins represent a challenge to representation. We are used to having our gaze ordered by a planned architecture, by a grid of streets that offers a succession of vanishing points… Where is the vanishing point in ruins? Plain or ornate, high or low, the buildings have been leveled to the same indescribable mass; nothing is hidden behind these hideous, crumbling walls – just an empty lot, and more rubble. Does that mean, cinematically, that there is no off-screen space? Or that there is nothing to see? (20)

Du addresses this aesthetic challenge by coining a complex editing strategy, in collaboration with Mary Stephen, the late Eric Rohmer’s long-time editor and a filmmaker in her own right, (21) (who had already worked with him on his previous film, Umbrella). The absence of a master gaze, of a reverse angle that would provide a meaning to the devastation, is articulated by a careful orchestration of the presence of a young man in weird-looking, unkempt clothes and shaggy hair, seen roaming through the destroyed streets or sleeping in the ruins. His face is pasty, dirty and expressionless, almost as if he were wearing stage make-up; he seems to be ubiquitous, floating more than walking, sometimes just standing there, smoking a cigarette. His surreal appearance marks a beat, a punctuation; there is something theatrical about it – to the point that one can wonder if Du had not mixed performance art and documentary (echoing Jia Zhangke’s insertion of surreal elements in Still Life and fictional figures in Dong.) In the first part of the film, the figure’s appearance and disappearance is constructed through montage; he is not connected to the other stories. In the footage taken in his second visit, Du gives him a context, a history, a name (Yang Bingbing), and redefines the space around him by a Bazinian use of the depth of field. An old man points at the makeshift shelter where his mentally challenged son is sleeping. “I have raised him. I am very attached to him.” Then he cooks rice, calls his son and finally goes to get him. Reality and surrealism coalesce in a single shot taken in a field of rubble: in the foreground, the father carries a bowl of rice; in the background, the son appears, in his badly-buttoned overcoat: it’s the mysterious madman. In a subsequent shot, the two men are seen together, standing at the table, the father serving food to the son, while the family cat looks upon the scene with feline bliss.

As the film concludes on a shot of the madman walking in the middle of traffic near destroyed buildings, it is tempting to see him as a stand-in (a ghost) for all the sons lost in the catastrophe. In a particularly sad sequence, a family – father, mother, older brother – explore what is left of a high school dormitory in search of a missing son. They locate his room – the mother tearfully identifies his clothes, his bedding – but no trace of his physical presence; it is as if he had vanished… The family leaves the school, hurdled together on one single motorbike, the father devastated and stoic… Searching the ruins for what is not, or no longer there, or not to be seen, becomes emblematic. Soon the survivors think of themselves as lost objects. This sheds a different light on the story of the butcher: thirty years ago, when he was a small child, in this “terrible” year 1979, tired of her husband’s inefficiency as a bread-winner, his mother left – and he hasn’t heard from her since. “I miss her terribly,” he says, trapped in his identity as a misplaced son, surrounded by displaced people who are missing someone or are being missed by others. The last shot – the madman’s disappearing into the landscape – also provides some sort of conclusion. His vacant eyes constitute the only possible suturation: they open onto nothing.

 

Review of "1428" in Australian film e-magazine of "sense of cinema"

From:http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/festival-reports/men-won’t-cry-–-traces-of-a-repressive-past-the-28th-vancouver-international-film-festival/

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