Directed by J.P. Sniadecki, Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao
Official Selection, 2013 Berlin International Film Festival
Official Selection, 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival
One of the first people seen in YUMEN emerges from a hole in the ground. One of the first voices heard tells a ghost story. This is the Gansu ghost town of Yumen, where oil drills from another era keep chugging away as if oblivious to the apocalypse that has passed. Its ghosts don’t haunt so much as play. The same can be said of the filmmakers – J.P. Sniadecki, Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao – who share Chinese avant-garde filmmaking’s alienating tactics, but have more in common with graffiti artists and cut-and-mixers who would rather paint strange faces than expel gravitas.
We follow an assortment of drifters, the sort we’ve already seen countless times in the Chinese cinema of the past 20 years. But it’s a performance of drifting, as if doing laps around the ruins like ghosts too stoned to haunt. Any semblance of narrative or empathy is ritualistically crushed with terrorizing glee. “Ruin porn” is an excuse for the reconstruction of something else: sofas and stuffed animals in the rubblescape, dancers in the fields and nudists hanging out atop a solitary column. As in the work of Li Hongqi, the debris of post-socialist China is an absurdist heaven. The sound is off. The dilapidated shells of buildings seem to smile for the camera. Pop songs – Pao Mei-sheng, Wonder Girls, Bruce Springsteen – are anachronous, meaning they’re perfectly China. The recent breakthroughs of Chinese documentary are the ones that seem to have broken documentary altogether. YUMEN looks at the rubble and dances in it. –Brian Hu