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Accessing the Everyday: Report From Reel China #2

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

This week we are spotlighting the Reel China Documentary Biennial, which held its Fifth edition last October with a showcase of nine recent documentaries produced by independent filmmakers in China. To commemorate the event, we are posting a handful of reports by attendees of the festival. Be sure to read the first report previously published, “Absurdity, Art and Life on Tape” by Isabella Tianzi Cai.

Accessing the Everyday

By Carol Wang

How does one access the everyday? NYU’s Reel China Documentary Biennial offered an opportunity to consider this question through a selection of contemporary documentaries from independent Chinese filmmakers. The festival began with Du Haibin’s 1428, which documents the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in a cinéma-vérité style. Du, initially arriving on the scene in Beichuan ten days after the quake, captures the images and narratives of a region reduced to rubble. A woman talks about her lost children while doing laundry, a family searches through an empty but intact dormitory for a missing son, and men duck under a crane to grab steel rods from a building site. A young unkempt man, wearing just an ill-fitting winter army coat, ambles across the frame and gazes intently into the camera with a vacant look. There is a considerable amount of news footage available from the days and weeks immediately following the earthquake; much of it is urgent, fast-paced, and sensationalistic. 1428 offers something more understated: a slower tempo, a measure of patience which seems to demonstrate the filmmaker’s concern for his subjects. Despite the abnormalities that define the lives of these individuals, there is very little drama. Real time, when transposed onto the screen, sometimes appears excruciatingly slow.

Du returns six months later to continue filming. It’s winter now, but many are still living in makeshift tent shelters, and continue to rely on government handouts to meet their daily needs. Some, though, have attempted to make their own living – the butcher trucks slabs of meat to the lot where government distributions take place, and teenagers are hawking DVDs and photos of the Beichuan disaster zone to tourists. Du plays an unexpected role here: In response to a question from a tourist, “Is the DVD okay?,” the vendor responds, “Of course, this is the Disaster Zone. If it’s no good, you can bring it back. Look, the media is documenting this” [paraphrased] – and the vendor gestures at Du’s camera, the implication being that the camera is somehow representative of officialdom. Viewers are also implicated, because we too are watching a DVD about the disaster zone.

We see the changing of seasons, and the film’s chronicling of the passage of time is steady. The message seems to be: life goes on. A father holds his toddler daughter with one hand and a twisted steel rod with the other. Du unexpectedly shows no funerals, but a wedding. The bride and groom, seen in the back of a car, arrive at their house and attempt to enter the bridal chamber. But the door is locked, and the groom, holding the bride, attempts awkwardly to kick the door in. In another scene, farmers try to herd uncooperative pigs onto a blue truck, but are only partially successful. Du seems to be depicting the quotidian in their lives as a way of reaffirming their humanity. The tragedy is not obvious – even the rubble, which signifies ruin but can also signal remaking, is commonplace in China. Is there a difference between earthquake rubble and construction rubble, unplanned destruction and planned destruction? Throughout 1428, the absurd, the tragic, and the mundane are represented in equal measure. Is this what constitutes the everyday?

Disorder (dir. Huang Weikai)

Huang Weikai offers a very different take on daily life in Disorder, a collage of disjointed, jarring snapshots that emphasize the absurdity that is characteristic of urban China today. By compiling footage from ordinary individuals who just happened to have a camera in the right place, at the right time, Huang has captured in filmic form the pathos of China’s rapid modernization. One of the opening scenes is that of an accident: a man lies prone on the ground in front of a car, and several individuals are bent over him. They are not concerned about his health, however, having already deduced that he is not hurt but playing it up to get compensation from the driver. Without explanation or voiceovers, the film cuts from one story to another and back – police conduct a raid that yields bear claws and anteaters, a family on a walk comes across an abandoned child, a man perched on a bridge demands to speak to a specific policeman about his grievance, and an archeological site is turned overnight into a private construction zone. Here, too, there are pigs running amok. They are on a highway, and in a later shot, live pigs are scampering around dead ones killed in an accident – unseen by the camera, but visible through the aftermath.

The individuals depicted here are emotional; they are furious, confused, bemused, and irritated. But as viewers, we don’t necessarily share their emotional response to the situation. We don’t even seem to share a response with other viewers. During the screening, there seemed to be a lack of consensus on how to interpret the scenes – very few garnered uniform responses from the audience, with some sitting silently as others laughed. The instability of what can be considered normal affects what we can be amused at, and what we must take seriously. The film refuses to translate China for its audiences, and this refusal can also be seen in the title(s). The film’s English title, Disorder, compels us to view the images through a certain lens, as if Huang’s point was to convey the disorderliness and incomprehensibility of these street scenes. Yet, if one considers his original Chinese title, Xianshi Shi Guoqu De Weilai (“now is future of the past”), this is not evident. Rather, what is conveyed is a sense of temporality and orderliness that is not apparent in the film. The past comes before the present, which comes before the future.

Despite this, however, Huang forgoes any attention to the continuous passage of time in the film, perhaps because there is no overarching narrative. All the footage is offered as representations of the immediate present, and even when the camera returns to a story after visiting others, it is as if no time has passed at all. The pigs are still on the highway, the man is still standing on the bridge’s handrails, and the baby continues to lie among the weeds. And since continuous time illustrates or is a marker of normalcy, the lack here contributes to the sense of the abnormal, the ridiculous, and the extraordinary. In very different ways, both 1428 and Disorder counter the prevailing narratives of modernization in China. An argument can be made that the documentary impulse in China is driven by a desire for truth and to show what the censored newscasts cannot. Du’s method is to let his subjects speak, and he dares us to listen, for as long as it takes them to tell their stories. Huang’s challenge to the viewer is of a very different order: he confronts our desire for coherence and linearity, and challenges us to redefine the normal and the everyday.

The absence of a narrative arc, and the fact that Huang did not film the footage himself, communicates a lack of investment in any of the individuals depicted. Disorder cannot demonstrate concern, as 1428 does, by hearing out laments, accusations, or stories of lost loved ones, because Huang was not present at the moment of filming. By entering the creative process at a later stage, Huang cannot help but depict the individuals as mere symbols or representations of urbanization, rather than as people. If the impulse for consuming Chinese documentary is to learn something – to acquire information, or to better understand some previously under-explicated aspect of Chinese life, one walks away from Disorder not having learned much of anything. Instead, what Huang imparts to his audience is a mood, a feeling, and something atmospheric, which reveals much more about China than a tidy narrative ever could.

Carol Wang is a graduate student in anthropology at The New School for Social Research.


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