In the deserted seats of a rickety, mint-colored train, a single man dozes, his sallow face blending into the moss green shadows that swallow the train up as it enters a mountain tunnel. Against the train’s mechanical rumble, a raspy, disembodied voice chants, “… 为了寻找你 (In my search for you)/我搬进鸟的眼睛 (I’ve made myself a new home in the eyes of a bird)/经常盯着路过的风 (Often staring at the passing wind) …” As the poem ends, the scene melts into shades of cyan blue. On a winding road that hugs the contours of small but steep mountains, a blue mist combs and claws through luscious, subtropical trees like wet fingers, and a white car drives on. The scene cuts again — the dozing man opens his eyes.
On a very basic level, “Kaili Blues,” or “路边野餐 (Roadside Picnic)” as it was originally titled in Chinese, is a story about a man’s journey across three towns to rescue his nephew. The protagonist Chen Sheng (Chen Yong-zhong) is a widowed country doctor trying his best to leave his checkered past behind and live a quiet life. In addition to bonding with his only co-worker, Dr. Guanglian (Zhao Da-qing), he enjoys visiting his eight- or nine-year old nephew Weiwei (Luo Fei-yang), the son of his half brother Crazy-face (Xie Li-xun). The brothers, who share a tumultuous relationship, especially after the death of their mother, come into further conflict as Chen criticizes Crazy-face’s ne’er-do-well lifestyle and inadequacy as a parent. The plot of the story effectively starts when Chen confronts Crazy-face about Weiwei’s disappearance, suspecting that Crazy-face sold Weiwei away, and sets off to the town of Zhenyuan to get his nephew back.
Time is warped in the movie, and its fragmented nature energizes the unfolding plot. In addition, Director Bi Gan masterfully shatters and pieces back together even more layers of mythology, poetry, and dreams. Slow, intimate close up shots of Chen Sheng’s sleeping face are often followed up by the silent, vacuated landscapes of his dreams. Radio reports and rumors of a wild caveman roaming the countryside are wryly referred to throughout the film, serving both as an inside joke and as an allegory of the protagonist’s isolated, unmoored sense of self. The slow, solemn reading of eight beautiful poems, supposedly written by Chen Sheng, are weaved into the film narrative like prayers or spells. In this world of interlacing fragments, it is often hard to figure out whether you are looking at dream or flashback, truth or symbol, fantasy or actual mythological presence. The rain-drenched town and spectre-like movements of its inhabitants, however, lull you into believing that this is a world where shadows walk, clocks turn back, and cavemen materialize on the backseat of pickup trucks.
In addition to its masterful, kaleidoscopic blend of artistic elements, this film’s distinct atmosphere of dreamy isolation is also influenced by its reference to the underlying ethnic tensions between Han Chinese inhabitants and Miao ethnic locals. Set against the larger regional backdrop of Guizhou, a remote province in the southwest highlands of China, the towns featured in this film are saturated with connotations of ruralness and cultural-foreignness compared to the Han ethnic hegemony of the more developed, eastern Chinese provinces. Kaili, which is the hometown to both the director and his film characters, means “Fields of the Mulao people” in the local Miao dialect and functions as the county center of Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture and a cultural hub for China’s Miao and Dong ethnic minorities. In contrast, Zhenyuan, the town where Weiwei was taken away to, means “safeguard the distant regions” in Mandarin Chinese, which characterizes the town as a borderland and outpost to the Han ethnic mainstream. Chen Sheng himself is ethnically Miao but has a Mandarin sounding name; the journey he took from Kaili, Dangmai, to Zhenyuan and back, further invites the audience to reflect on how lore intersects with real life and how regional, ethnic history colors present activities.
The most intriguing and renowned segment of the film, however, is Chen Sheng’s journey through Dangmai (“Roving Wheat”), a town he passes through on his way to Zhenyuan. Introduced by a hazy montage of blue and gold batik depictions of Miao flute players, Chen Sheng’s journey in Dangmai is shot in a 40-minute one-take sequence. Without giving even more of the plot away, this segment is a place where dreams, regrets, and fantasy converge and converse. The camera movement in this sequence, in contrast to the more stable, smooth long shots or close ups favored in most of the film, is hand-held and humanized. In Dangmai, the cameraman’s presence, rendered invisible in the rest of the film, becomes crucial to the film narrative. As the cameraman trots after Chen Sheng and the various Dangmai citizens he encounters, the audience seems to follow them as well — looking around at the dilapidated town and glancing down cautiously at the mossy riverbanks as a character tries to exit a boat. Nothing sums this segment up better than the film’s Chinese promoting slogan: “跟野鬼和风一起梦游 (Dreamwalk with wild ghosts and the wind).”
“Kaili Blues” is the first film attempt of emerging Chinese director Bi Gan, winning him international attention. His second film “Long Days Journey into Night” (2018) was shown at Festival de Cannes, propelling him to further fame. This magical movie is definitely a must-see for anyone who is intrigued by avant garde cinema or simply interested in dream-walking through a misty land where lore comes to life.
The movie ends hauntingly on the image of Chen falling asleep on a forward moving train as the ghostly animation of a clock ticking back is superimposed on a train going the other direction. As I turned off my computer and climbed into bed, I feel the night ticking itself away. In the distance, the last SEPTA train whistled into a dreamless blue.
“Kaili Blues” is available for free on Kanopy.