Shelly on Film: The Twenty Minute Standout of Rotterdam
by Shelly Kraicer
Condolences (dir. Ying Liang)
I’ve always enjoyed attending the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), which perks up a dark and sleety Dutch mid-winter with what is quite possibly the world’s most creatively curated large-scale festival of art and experimental cinema. IFFR has always strongly supported Chinese language independent films. And films in Chinese usually do quite well there, having won the top prize, the Tiger Award, quite often in past few years (Flower in the Pocket, Malaysia, 2008; Love Conquers All, Malaysia, 2007; Walking on the Wild Side, 2006, China; The Missing, Taiwan, 2004; Suzhou River, China, 2000).
Even if this year’s lineup of new Chinese films might have been a bit less scintillating than usual (though standouts included Yang Heng’s Sun Spots in competition, Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II, Lou Ye’s Spring Fever, and Xu Tong’s documentary Wheat Harvest), one short stood out: Ying Liang’s Condolences (Weiwen). And the IFFR jury recognized this: Condolences won one of three Tiger Awards for Short Film. It’s a particularly well-deserved prize, in my opinion: this 20 minute fiction short of Ying Liang’s is this gifted young Chinese director’s best work so far.
It’s not hard to describe the materials with which Condolences is constructed. The film opens with a short introduction showing still pictures and a voice over news report of an actual fatal bus accident in Zigong (Ying’s hometown) on March 31, 2004. Then we see a quick shot, under the title, of a broken ceiling. After which the film’s core, a long take begins. For 19 minutes, up to and including the closing credits we watch one shot. The camera looks along an interior hallway or long covered courtyard, slightly off centre, to a brighter courtyard space far off at the end where funeral preparations are underway. In the middle foreground, an old woman sits alone on a stool, almost in silhouette. Various people bustle around: a TV crew and some assistants preparing the funeral. Later on, a delegation of visiting local officials arrives, inspecting it while greeting the old woman. We can also spy a Buddhist monk in orange vestments who arrives late, and an aggrieved older resident. We learn that the old woman, Grandma Chen, has lost her husband and son in the bus accident, and the funeral is for them.
The entire complex action of the film takes place in this one shot, in the manner of pre-classical cinema. Ying’s camera captures this long space, and his mise-en-scene arranges the action in at least five separate planes: the foreground space, where people pass through; Grandma Chen on her stool a bit further back; the middle ground of the receding hallway; the background room where the funeral transpires; and finally the back wall decorated with a large hanging cloth and portraits of the deceased. This pictorial structure is uncannily like a Velazquez, with its layering, multiple points of focus, and narrative-in-depth, constructs an active, engaged viewer in much the same manner as the Spanish master’s great paintings.
Most of the movement is provided by the TV crew, a director, cameraman, and reporter (the latter played by Ying Liang’s producer and co-designer Peng Shan) who move back and forth through the space capturing an official report for local (state-owned) TV. The other agent of movement is the Zigong city mayor’s delegation, who wind through the space three times, like a snake, formally greeting Grandma Chen, offering her some “gifts” (a comforter, some bags of groceries), conveying to her official condolences, and inspecting the shabby and rubble-filled space.
One hilarious bit of business has the TV reporter shooing the monk, resplendent in yellow, away when he comes to inspect her interviewing the mayor; later, as he bangs his prayer drum, she tells him to shut up while she records an introduction. From the beginning, we hear sounds of drilling and hammering, and later can infer that the old neighbourhood is being torn down.There seem to be only two holdouts in this old residence: Grandma Chen and the older male resident, who interrupts the mayor’s visit to complain about being forced to move without compensation and is summarily hustled out of mayoral and camera range.
The politics of forced, under-compensated relocation and property development are one element lying under the film’s surface. Another, more fundamental, is a satire on the construction, mediatization, and presentation of official versions of “reality” (i.e. lies) in Chinese media and governance. The official bustle around the human centre of attention, Grandma Chen, mostly ignores her. The TV crew are busy filming a propaganda-news version of the funeral and visit (we overhear a comment implying that they have in fact paid for the funeral service to provide a backdrop for the report). The official visit itself is a perfectly distilled miniature version of Chinese official government speech and action: the mayor goes through his motions for the camera, using Grandma Chen essentially as a prop. Finally, everyone except Grandma Chen clears out, and she approaches the altar at the back, and, continuing to face away from us, burns funeral money and attend to her private grief.
Condolences highlights Ying Liang’s gifts as a filmmaker. He’s at his best, I think, when he’s designing conceptually. His use of cinema structure to lay out, articulate, and work through partly abstract, political, conceptual problems is best shown, up to now, in his brilliant feature The Other Half (2007), where a sequential interview form probes deeply into gendered domestic relations and environmental crises. Taking Father Home (2005), firmly grounded in plot, is to me less successful in this regard, since it is heavily weighted towards pure narrative. On the other hand, Good Cats (2008) bravely tries, experimentally, to synthesize political/symbolic conceptualization with a through-composed story. Its strengths derive from the tension within the film between symbolic language and narrative realism: it’s a tension that the film never quite works out, but it’s one that one could call productively provocative. Condolences is tight: pure, complex, rich, and precisely designed: structure and content are tightly integrated. And the film sparkles: it brings a sharp, brilliant, humane illumination to cold Rotterdam winter days.