It’s only a matter of time: before the time travel/ghost story/road movie “Kaili Blues” becomes the landmark Chinese film I see it as; before we await the next film by first-time feature director and poet, former miner and wedding videographer Bi Gan with the excitement reserved for the heavyweight names in Asian cinema. Made for a negligible budget with mostly non-actors and a first-time cinematographer, “Kaili Blues” has a scope that transcends the neorealist leanings of modern Chinese art cinema to expand into the very dreams and memories of Guizhou. As Guillermo del Toro raved, it’s a “geography of the soul,” a private map of a territory on the forefront of the global commercial battle for cinema that’s rarely ever seen in movies.
Although the film has been lauded with international awards from Locarno onwards, and officially and somewhat unexpectedly been approved by the Chinese state censors, its release there was ironically postponed this week due to the onslaught of the nearly nationless “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Alice Through The Looking Glass,” and “Warcraft.” Audiences in New York City, however, can catch it in Chinatown’s new movie theater Metrograph, where it has been doing so well as to warrant expansion to other U.S. cities.
Everything in this movie has filmmaking intent; I imagine the long, wide pans are mirroring the rotation of a clock’s arms, a recurring image. I was so taken by the film, I sought to know more about its young director, who imbues his film with his own poems, family, and actors on the way to a stunning 41-minute single one-take shot without cuts that covers miles of countryside and villages with wheels, water, live music, haircuts, ghosts, and a mischievous cat. Its technical imperfections matter none; in ambition, it’s on par with the best one-take shots of Andrei Tarkovsky, Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki, or even Mikhail Kalatozov‘s “I Am Cuba,” where social environment is as important as character and spectacle. In terms of the film’s story and ideas and as a reward for the viewer’s patience, it’s inseparable and necessary, and the best reason to see this in a theater, if you can.
I was intensely curious as to how Bi had become versed in global cinema coming from the mining town of Kaili, as a list of his favorite movies of the past 10 years shows a borderless, voracious viewing appetite. Bi’s film is also a landmark because it is a movie whose cinematic forebears come from the Internet just as much as the movie theater. We spoke via a translator over email, of which Bi ruminated: “Due to the differences in languages, it may have some loss to an extent, so our conversation will be like we’re reading translated foreign poems.”
In that spirit, and in the hopes of getting closer to Bi Gan, I’ve preserved some of the quirks of translation, such as the general lack of tense in Mandarin, for a film that begins with a quote from the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, about how time cannot be grasped.
Is there anything important for people who love movies to know about you and what it was like to grow up in Kaili?
I grew up in my Mom’s barbershop and my Grandma’s mahjong house, now I am married and have my own child here as well. In Kaili, I am just an ordinary young person.
So how does a very young person discover global cinema growing up in Kaili? Were the movies of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wim Wenders and Carlos Reygadas things you discovered in film school or even earlier?
I watched some films when I went to college in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province; I watched them through the Internet and in the college screening room. Outside my college, there is a DVD shop; you can find many arthouse films in there, which are hard to find in other places. However, at that time, I didn’t have any money to buy them, so I cheated my roommate and told him that I have seen some great films (actually I hadn’t watched them at all), and he would follow my advice to buy these films and watch them in our room, so I would have a chance to watch with him.
I watched all of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s, Wim Wenders’, and Tarkovsky’s films in college, I rarely go to classes, so I have plenty of time to watch films and write scripts.
What role did the Internet play in discovering movies?
In some aspects, for me, the Internet had so much freedom and abundance, it’s like I owned a huge private library and a screening room.
Is there a movie theater in Kaili that means a lot to you?
In Kaili, I only watched Stephen Chow’s films (I liked them very much). The first time I watched a movie it was a Stephen Chow film. There [was] one [memorably] violent scene: a man sitting in a closed sedan, then suddenly a knife stabs him from outside. I was very shocked and my Dad covered my eyes with his hand. When I watched Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” in college, I was shocked again and it totally subverted my concept about film.
There is a cinema in Kaili called Zhou Cinema (as Kaili is part of QianDongNan Zhou), it is gone already, and this is my only memory about film in Kaili, it’s also my parent’s memory about their love and youth. When I was a child, I always went there with my Dad, the last time we watched a movie in that cinema was “Titanic,” and my Dad loved it very much.
You cast your uncle, a non-actor, in the lead role of a doctor who has done prison time. How much of his real life, and other members of your cast, are in the film?
Actually it is not too much from their real life, most of the story comes from a variation of their life with some of my illusions.
You use “Roadside Picnic” as the title of a book of poems in “Kaili Blues,” which is also the title for the sci-fi novel Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” is based on. The first time you saw “Stalker” was very important to you, but it’s because you didn’t like the film at first?
The first time I wanted to watch “Stalker” was because the director looks like my Grandpa. As I watched it, I felt it is very awful and I thought that this world famous director cheated me. I wanted to critique this film so I thought I should finish watching it first. However, it was too hard for me at that time, I could only watch five to ten minutes each day. Finally, I finished it one day and I went to the school cafeteria for lunch, thinking I could proudly write an essay to criticize Tarkovsky when I got back to my room. Suddenly, something bumped into my mind: why can’t film be like this? Can you achieve aesthetics through how you film?
I admit the first time I saw “Solaris,” in film school, my reaction was to fall asleep. But now his movies feel like a church to me.
I think it feels good when you sleep during a film and I do often. I think “Solaris” is a good choice for it.
What came first, writing (your poetry, storytelling) or filmmaking?
To me, writing is much earlier than filmmaking.
You were once a wedding videographer. What did you discover about making movies from doing that job?
I enjoyed when I was a wedding videographer. I only need to handle a simple camera and move freely, full of a ceremonious sense, which I think is similar to writing poems.
Were there other jobs you had, or paths in life you thought you might take before becoming a filmmaker?
I also worked at a gas station for a short period. Before starting to make “Kaili Blues,” I got a rock-buster license, and planned to be a rock-buster in the mountains, clearing roads and breaking rocks for construction.
(Translation note: rock busting is drilling rock for mining or excavation)