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Three New Chinese Indie Docs Reviewed in Variety and Twitch

By Kevin B. Lee

"Are We Really So Far from the Madhouse?"

Covering the Vancouver International Film Festival for Variety, Robert Koehler has been filing rave reviews of some new Chinese independent documentaries he’s seen at the festival’s Dragons and Tigers lineup. We are excited to see his praise for Bachelor Mountain, the new film by Yu Guangyi (whose Timber Gang is distributed by dGenerate) and Are We Really So Far from the Madhouse, the latest by Li Hongqi (whose Winter Vacation is available through dGF).

Coincidentally, the same three documentaries are also reviewed enthusiastically by Kathie Smith, who covered VIFF for the website Twitch.

Click through to read excerpts from Koehler’s and Smith’s reviews – click on their names to access the full text of Koehler’s reviews on Variety (registration required) and Smith’s on Twitch. Also read the program notes on all Chinese language films at VIFF by programmer Shelly Kraicer.

Bachelor Mountain

Koehler: “Reinforcing his position as one of the world’s superior nonfiction filmmakers, Yu Guangyi completes a landmark docu trilogy with the exquisitely observed and touching “Bachelor Mountain.” Rounding out what came before with the rough-and-ready “Timber Gang” and the intense character study “Survival Song,” Yu’s look at the life and impossible love of a hardscrabble logger/laborer is his most emotionally felt work and, if fests are paying attention, should get Yu some worldwide love.”

Smith: Yu Guangyi’s Bachelor Mountain peels one more layer back from the façade built around the international notion of modern China. With a sharp eye for the punishing and perfunctory realities of life in the Changbai Mountins, Yu reveals humanity without exploitation or device. Men are beasts of burden up for hire, and the climate measures up to an unspoken endurance test of keeping warm–neither of these are opinions, but frank facts of the blunt images far from the financial centers of China’s economic dragon.

Are We Really So Far from the Madhouse?

Koehler: The epic road trip of gifted Chinese post-punk band P.K. 14 is given radical cinematic treatment in “Are We Really So Far From the Madhouse?” One of China’s most inventive rising filmmakers, Li Hongqi (“Winter Vacation”), flexes his filmmaking muscles by rethinking the music doc from the ground up. Li’s typically deadpan wit comes across here in unexpected ways, which will strike chords with progressive and music-specialty fests worldwide.

Smith: Mainland Chinese music isn’t all erhus and Teresa Teng. Likewise, Mainland film isn’t all Zhang Yimou and quasi-political dramas. Like a match made in post-rock experimental film heaven, Are We Really So Far From a Madhouse? is a collaboration between Li Hongqi (who sent me swooning last year at VIFF withWinter Vacation) and underground rock darlings P.K. 14. Pushing the boundaries of a documentary, Madhouse might as well be considered a sound and image collage within a very loose context. Li hangs out with P.K. 14 on tour in China, films them on stage, in the van and in hotels, and sets a dozen of these sequences to their songs and bizarre ambient sound. If that sounds like a glossed up tour video, think again. Li is a director who relishes mundane and monotony to the point of beautiful abstraction.


Koehler: A devoted son’s virtually single-minded care for his slowly dying father is given similarly disciplined focus in He Yuan’s gorgeous “Apuda.” Much like Harvard-based filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Elisa Barbash, who combine a highly sophisticated approach to filmmaking with scientific analysis, He is an ethnographic researcher at the Yunnan Academy of Sciences who also happens to be a documaker of considerable artistry. Pic’s length and extreme slowness will make it a more exotic item for art-centric and docu fests, but this gem shouldn’t be overlooked.

Smith: It is hard not to think of Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas films, especially In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, while silently occupying the dark, oppressive space that of Apuda calls home. He Yuan’s portraiture through the camera lens is equally as haunting and uncompromising as Costa’s. Apuda is a tough film, but not for the sake of being tough. The contrast between the living conditions depicted in the film and anyone watching the film anywhere is huge. Life, especially in the West, has been homogenized by progress and sterilized by convenience to the point that the images of a simple man with little means are shocking. He Yuan’s explicit ethnographic study has far more grand sociological implications through film and its unlimited global reach. Apuda is an astonishing documentary with micro specificity but macro scope.


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