At first glance, Kaili Blues seems satisfied to be nothing more than director Bi Gan’s personal pet project. Set in Bi’s hometown, Kaili (凯 里), a little-known city in Guizhou Province, the film started shooting with only 3,000 USD contributed by the director’s friends and family, who also make up the entire cast. The film was screened in theaters for just ten days. “My film is made for wild ghosts and wind, I have no expectations,” Bi joked, employing some of the obtuse poetics that dominate the film.
Despite the film’s odd writing choices, audiences have been strangely positive toward the movie. Though confused by it, viewers often returned to cinemas for second and third viewings. With a Locarno International Film Festival showing in Sweden and the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, there’s got to be something there.
Backed up by a positive reception, Bi is pretty confident: “My film is a heavy rain, but please don’t come with umbrellas.”
Films are regarded as significant either because of their own artistic completeness or by acting as a “lighthouse” in showing a new direction. Kaili Blues, though not a torrential downpour as claimed by the director himself, can be called a boom of muffled thunder that anticipates a heavy rain.
In Kaili, a small city that seems forgotten by time, Chen Sheng (played by Bi’s uncle, Chen Yongzhong) works as a physician in a shabby clinic. He, like others, lives life stuck in a cycle. Underneath the contagious stagnation, however, everyone is swamped by their past, symbolized by the cars seen stalling throughout the film. As Chen goes on a journey to find his brother’s son, Weiwei, episodes from his past reveal his time in prison and his deceased wife. Chockablock with symbolism and epiphanies, the narration carries a slippery otherworldliness that enmeshes Chen’s past with the present journey—perhaps even pointing to the future.
Bi intends to break the linearity of time, and the looping narration fails to smoothly carry the audience through. The often abrupt jumps in time and the intentional play with ambiguity often leave the audience confused— more of an albatross around the viewer’s neck than a thoughtprovoking wonder.
This supposed “new magical realism” puts the viewer, one must say, in the driver’s seat; fans have been quick to say that the viewer’s inability to follow is more at fault than the bumpy narration.
There are many reasons why the audience may feel this sense of humility. The most important factor is, perhaps, the consensus that Kaili Blues is a “poetic” film. Almost every frame is captured with a delicate bluish grace, and Chen’s poems have a sort of odd perfection given the exotic accent. The actual poetry of the film slightly makes up for the relatively weak narration.
But the word “poetic”—as a form of “new magical realism”—is a container people often use to paper over big mistakes in storytelling. What’s more likely is that the film’s language is so out of the ordinary and so engrossing that audiences and critics are looking for excuses to overlook gaping narrative flaws.
If not for Kaili Blues, Bi Gan would still be in the mountains of his hometown. Isolated from movie circles and under no pressure to please any stakeholders, he demonstrates the freedom and free will of “a wild movie”. As the Hollywood industry expands in concentric circles and the Chinese movie scene is dominated by filmmakers from the big cities, Kaili Blues emerges to remind us that art films are always about sincere expression.
Weiwei: Lao Chen, I’ll take you as far as Dangmai River and I’ll be on my way. I’m going further along to draw on the trains.
Lǎo Chén, yíhuìr wǒ bǎ nǐ sòngdào Dàngmài Hé biān, wǒ jiù zǒu le. Wǒ hái yào qù yuǎn yīdiǎnr de dìfang huà huǒchē.
Chen Sheng: Draw on the trains?
Weiwei: Mm. Yangyang says she’ll only come back if I can turn back time.
Èn. Yángyang jiǎng, chúfēi wǒ kéyǐ ràng shìjiān dǎo huí qù, tā cáinéng huílái.
Chen Sheng: So what are you going to do?
Nà nǐ dǎsuàn zěnme bàn?
Weiwei: I’m going to do exactly that. I’m going to draw a clock on each train and the clocks will all be connected.
Wǒ yǒu bànfà ràng tā zài huǒchē shàng kàndào. Wǒ zài měi yī jiā huǒchē shàng dōu huàshàng zhōngbiǎo, wǒ ràng tāmen quánbù dōu lián qǐlái.
“Kaili Blues” is a story from our newest issue, “Gender Equality”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.