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Chinese Reality #17: Yumen

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art (May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

Yumen (dir. Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, J.P. Sniadecki)

Yumen (dir. Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, J.P. Sniadecki)


2013. China/USA. Directed by Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, J. P. Sniadecki.

This highly experimental twist on the ethnographic documentary visits the town of Yumen, in China’s northwest Gansu province, a once-thriving, oil-rich community in the 1980s that has been left depleted and derelict. Strikingly shot on film, Yumen tells the story of this ghost town through a series of wandering characters and inventive vignettes in which even the spirit of Bruce Springsteen is summoned to comment on a world in ruins. A collaboration between Chinese and American filmmakers, Yumen pushes the boundaries of the documentary aesthetic in depicting China’s past and present.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

Fusing documentary and staged scenes in a manner reminiscent of Godard from the 1970s onward, Yumen brings dignity and beauty to a place that lies in near ruins, and was the finest piece of cinematic portraiture I witnessed at this year’s Berlinale.

Travis Jeppesen, Artforum

Filmed in 16 mm, the director chooses to keep in the final edition all the evidence of the filming, with blurry shots and reel endings, even keeping the camera noise. This is a painful and nostalgic homage to a fading world and the medium which registered it.

Eva Sangiorgi, FICUNAM

When a film like this articulates its setting—that of its title, a once oil-rich beacon of production in the northwest Gansu province that has since been nearly abandoned—one realizes how few films understand how to create a vivid sense of place. More than simply pointing the camera at a locale, the filmmakers conjure the very soul of Yumen, this all-but-defunct, oil (ghost) town. The monstrous, pulsating rhythm of drilling, the contrastive contours of the landscape, and the lonely group of buildings contained therein. The sound design brings forth a new layer of varying ironies and heartbreak—the very fabric of a broken space.

Adam Cook, Mubi


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