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Chinese Reality #19: Disorder

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:

Disorder (dir. Huang Weikai)

Disorder (dir. Huang Weikai)

Xianshi shi guoqu de weilai (Disorder)

2009. China. Directed by Huang Weikai.

Assembling footage from a dozen amateur videographers, Huang Weikai presents a unique anti-city symphony of urban dysfunction that is alternately hilarious and horrifying. Pigs racing down a busy highway, government VIPs swimming in a polluted river, a hit-and-run victim being bribed to leave the scene, and an abandoned baby gawked at by passersby are all stranger-than-fiction visions that could never be aired on Chinese state television. These images represent both an alternative media culture of amateur videographers and viral video netizens, and the chaos seething through the cracks of a society in rapid transformation.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

Disorder was one of the most mesmerizing films I’ve seen in ages. Rendered in a grainy black and white, the film consists of a random sequence of brief, minute-or-so glimpses into the various spaces of Guangzhou’s public life. It’s bracing, occasionally confusing, and heavily ideas-driven—Weikai assembled the footage from over one-thousand hours of footage he collected from other, amateur filmmakers, and while stitching this footage together, he followed but one rule: No successive scenes could come from the same source tape. It’s a film that aspires toward democracy, that hopes to represent the multitude.

Hua Hsu, The Atlantic, October 19 2010

These hobbyists would just shoot with DV cameras for the sake of shooting. They’d often forget what they had filmed, or simply feel that the footage they had compiled was of no value…After watching some of the footage, I was astonished by the things they documented, so at the time I came up with the idea for Disorder. Because I had watched hours and hours of their footage, I got the idea to use a collage method to expose another side of the city. There were so many different perspectives revealed in their footage that showed the absurd side of life in this city.

Huang Weikai, interviewed in LEAP, 2010

Most of the material was shot in Guangzhou — Huang’s hometown and one that, like most Chinese metropolises, is expanding at a violent, rapid clip — but it is intended to stand for the whole of China. It cannot be said to really begin or end, it just bursts on the screen in medias res and gallops toward oblivion. The preliminary images portray a busted fire hydrant raining torrents on a busy intersection as drivers tentatively decipher their way through. It’s an apt synecdoche for most of what follows, as we see average Chinese citizens try to go about their days confronted by an abusive civil service, jury-rigged infrastructure, and extreme population density.

Colin Beckett, UnionDocs

In interviews, Huang has speculated that the concept of “disorder” might vary according to ethnicity. Is there a form of chaos that is distinctly Chinese? Apparently yes, and his film both documents and embodies it. Grainy black-and-white footage, captured by amateur on-the-scene videographers, has been spliced together to create a nonstop portrait of a metropolis gone berserk—a city symphony from hell.

Chris Chang, Film Comment

Q: What made you want to make it in black and white? Huang: There are two reasons: one subjective, and the other objective. The objective reason is that I had collected different kinds of raw footage, and I also had several digital videocameras. Since different cameras have different visual qualities, shooting in black and white would help me eliminate the ostensible differences between colors. The subjective reason is that I used to be a brush painter, and I like portraying visuals in black and white.

Huang Weikai, interviewed at DocChina in 2009, published on dGenerate

Tossed into a maelstrom of deracinated images from Huang’s native province, we’re left adrift and agog at brief scenes of traffic jams, floods, accidents, police violence, fools winding through lanes of heavy traffic, and so many, many farm animals gone astray. Programmer Sean Farnel has gone beyond considering Disorder a “city symphony,” merely saying it’s set in “Chris Marker-ville,” and Huang’s film is indeed an act of sustained bricolage, essaying contemporary China through a reported 1,000 hours of footage from amateur shooters, creating an eruptive, hallucinatory landscape, resisting narrative, that is both tactile and otherworldly. It may be the first great film of the 22nd century.

Ray Pride, Moving Image Source

A patchwork of amateur footage offers a berserk, scattershot glimpse into the public and private spheres of this modern metropolis. A distant cousin of Godard’s Weekend, shot through with Keystone Kops, discontented citizens, and a renegade pig, Disorder is an original, terrifying portrait of a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Michael Chaiken, Film Comment

The film’s overarching concept is its detailing of a trickle-down systematic breakdown of law and order. We may see a lot of policemen in Disorder, but most of them are shown to be ineffectual at best, not even powerful enough to stop jaywalkers or even pigs from disrupting traffic. But the domestic unrest cuts deeper than such acts of indifferent nature and civil disobedience. One man who threatens to jump off a bridge complains about not being properly compensated at his job; another plot thread features the sight of government officials being forced to wade into a polluted river themselves. Worse, such dissatisfaction may well be reflected in the general populace. Perhaps that explains why all those random passersby seem to ignore that poor abandoned baby in the park; the one person who does gesture to help feels a need to ask if she should bring this to the attention of the police. Something seems rotten in China if this is something that needs to legitimately be asked.

Kenji Fujishima, In Review Online

DISORDER is a seesaw between anxiety and gleeful wonderment. The sequences are bridged by asynchronous sound, bleeding from one event to the next, and the most common through-line is a never-ending parade of apathetic authority figures. “It will lead to paperwork, we have bigger problems” would be an apt alternate title for this modern masterpiece, if that didn’t sidestep the greater argument being made here. By shedding light on the magnificent number of situations people get into for which there is no logical resolution, Huang renders these occurrences mundane. The man seeking relief from a health inspector for the roach in his meal is just as crazy as the man threatening to jump of a bridge unless the police help him get relief (from what we never really know). Life as a system of orderly events is not just an illusion, but is the most illogical thought of all.

– Jason HalprinCine-file

The events represented in the film seem to reflect a form of urban possession, an abstract power of the city over its inhabitants, who attempt to confront and grapple with the absurd events that unfold in the lived experience of the everyday. In Disorder, we witness possession on multiple registers—the possession of individuals under the gaze of a DV camera, and the possession of both director and subject under the spell of the city. Through the reconfiguration and recontextualization of “found objects,” or found footage in the case of Huang Weikai’s project, he introduces jarring juxtapositions that subvert audience identification, often leaving the viewer bewildered, disoriented, powerless and confused. The film’s raw, grainy DV quality and its radical leaps from fragment to fragment are aesthetically mesmerizing. It distills a number of the qualities that Walter Benjamin locates in the practices of the surrealists, particularly the blurring of waking and dreaming states, and the interpenetration of image and language to yield a system of unstable meanings. As Benjamin writes in The Arcades Project, “And no face is surrealistic to the same degree as the true face of a city.” AsDisorder exposes the underbelly of the city, making visible the absurd occurrences that are often subordinated to the realm of the invisible, his film offers a provocative portrait of an overwhelmingly absurd urban experience.

– Philip TinariLEAP


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