I like to think I’m pretty on top of the most notable releases every year at this point but this is a film that would never have even appeared on my personal radar if it hadn’t been recommended to me by my cinephile friend. This is the first feature film made by its director Bi Gan and it’s so obscure that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page.
Kaili Blues only has a plot in the loosest sense of the word but it is possible to discern some semblance of a story in it. Chen works in a clinic in the city of Kaili that is owned by an older lady doctor. His half brother has a son Wei Wei who Chen fears is being neglected and he wants the child to live with him. One day his half brother arranges for Wei Wei to be sent to Zhenyuan under the care of an acquaintance of both of them. When she learns where he is going, the doctor also wants Chen to seek out an old lover of hers who is now old and dying in order to give him some gifts. Journeying by train and then by car and plagued by dreams and visions, Chen’s sense of time and space becomes confused. Along the way, he stops by the small village of Dang Mai where he interacts with the locals.
Very quickly however it becomes obvious that the story is probably the last thing on Bi’s mind as he made this film. The real star is the city of Kaili itself as well as its surroundings. There’s even a scene in which a woman, practising to be a tour guide, recites an infodump about Kaili while the boatman ferrying her notices what she’s doing and cheekily murmurs the exact same spiel to further reinforce this impression. A fair case could also be made that the film exists only as a showcase for Bi’s directorial skills. That sounds terribly self-indulgent and even arrogant but the result speak for themselves. The film is so beautiful and perfectly put together that I am left in awe. Influences from numerous other directors are present with Tarkovsky being perhaps the most obvious. Kaili Blues in the title in English and its original Chinese title literally translates to Roadside Picnic which is the science-fiction short novel upon which Stalker was based. The first third or so of the film is full of shots that wouldn’t look out of place there, with the dripping, rich textures of moldy walls and uneven, glistening floors.
Of course the most impressive scene in the film is the single take walk through of a village that Chen passes through on his journey. The scene begins modestly as he tries to secure transport to the town and settles on a motorcycle taxi. We watch as he gets on, cautions the driver not to go too fast and then we’re off. We only sense that something more than the ordinary is going on as the shot goes on and on and never stops as we watch them arrive, see him interact with the locals and then the camera freely wanders the village latching onto different characters to show them as they live, eat and work. The technical challenges involved in coordinating all of the movements are mind-blowing as the scene goes on for more than forty minutes. At the same time, it’s incredibly effective at capturing a sense of the place, of the village’s geography and the kind of people who live in it. Its sheer length evokes an unparalleled sense of immersion which makes Chen’s comment when the scene finally ends that ‘it feels like a dream’ all the more fitting. I can’t recall another scene in recent memory that struck me as powerfully as this one.
As with so many films by great auteur-directors, Kaili Blues has a deeply meditative quality and in this case one that is rooted strongly in its setting. Apart from this however I’m not sure that it actually has a strong theme. For example while the poetry recital that is interspersed throughout the film provides a cadence that greatly heightens the film’s mesmerizing effect, I find myself not much caring for the content of the poems themselves. I don’t even care for any of the characters as the film itself appears to take a dismissive attitude towards its own story. Yet this work is such that the sheer directorial brilliance on display here does away with any need for theme or plot. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it simply enraptures you with its beauty and how every shot shows you something that is new, interesting or surprising.
This lack of any kind of feeling of personal connection precludes Kaili Blues from ever being one of my favorites. Of all the films I’ve watched so far this year, my favorite is probably still Paterson. But this one I think is the best film I’ve watched this year.