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<i>Ghost Town</i> labeled “Crucial Viewing” at Chicago Doc Films

"Ghost Town" (dir. Zhao Dayong)

Zhao Dayong’s epic documentary Ghost Town is labeled “Crucial Viewing” by the Chicago Cine-file blog. Ghost Town screens tonight at University of Chicago’s Doc Films at 7pm. Screening details here.

Patrick Friel writes in Cine-file:

GHOST TOWN is a cinema of accretion: details build up, people’s lives pull into focus, the arc of a place is allowed to emerge. What would have been picturesque at 70 minutes begins to verge on profound at 170 minutes. Zhao’s film is observational in mode, like Frederick Wiseman’s work. But Wiseman gains depth through the actions of the people who inhabit and interact with the social structures and institutions he focuses on. Zhao’s subject is also a “structure” – the small village of Zhiziluo in the Southeastern part of China, near Tibet and Burma. Zhao focuses on the breakdown of this place, formerly a county seat and now all-but abandoned by the Communist government. Only the locals remain, struggling with their day-to-day existence and dealing with poverty, divorce, alcoholism, lack of work, marriages of convenience. This abandonment also allows a degree of freedom for the Christian members of the community who faced severe repression and imprisonment in decades past. As subject matter, all this is nothing spectacular or surprising – documentaries on the poor and disenfranchised abound. It is Zhao’s exceptional use of digital video and natural light and his eye for small moments and details that transform GHOST TOWN from sociological documentation into Cinema. Zhao gets a range of looks from his DV format – dark, chiaroscuro-laden interiors like those in Pedro Costa’s COLOSSAL YOUTH; hazy, muted exteriors that could be Hong Sang-soo; eye popping swaths of color that would be at home in an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film; verité rigor and dreamlike softness. But it is the many small moments and little details that add an incredible richness to the film. A cat lazing by a fire. A chicken walking past the camera, filling the frame. Sparks flaring up during a ghost ceremony. The blue hat of an elderly woman singing. Young boys rough-housing. Dogs sniffing each other. Zhao lets things unfold in their own way and lets our eye wander with his own. It is when he moves beyond the specifics of hardship to the specifics of place that the film shines. (2008, 170 min, video)