In the middle of his first feature film Kaili Blues (2016) Chinese director Gan Bi orchestrates a 45 minute tracking long-take through a misty village in the mountainous Southern province of Guizhou.
The scene is set in the mountains of Southern China. A doctor, Chen, is on a journey to find pipe musicians to play at the grave of a dead friend. As the scene opens, men lounge on a stone wall. They smoke cigarettes. The sky is overcast. A child passes by. The men are seated in front of a stone house. The house is on the side of a mountain road. The scene has a sense of calmness. It’s green, and the sky is overcast. Their motorbikes are parked in front of them. A woman named Yangyang yells, “I’m going out uncle.”
She exits the stone house. She’s wearing a sleeveless blouse sandals and a yellow skirt.
She walks down a path to a man seated on a motorbike. He has an oversized short sleeve oxford and cuffed jeans.
“Do you need a ride?”
He attempts to start the bike, but it won’t catch. She motions to a blue container on the seat.
“I went to pick up some paint.”
She rubs her arms.
She’s wearing a white blouse with a yellow summer skirt.
“Is it playing up again?”
She walks to another bike
“Whose motorbike is this?”
The owner of the bike gets on and it starts right up.
The other man tries to get his bike started.
“Who are you swearing at?”
The Doctor approaches.
“Five yuan to Zenzhuan.”
“I’m looking for a group of Miao, that can play Lusheng Pipes.”
The men on the wall shrug, “No one plays the Lusheng anymore.”
“I know them,” says the man who’s just started his motorbike.
“I drive past them every day they’re just up this road.”
“Watch that he doesn’t take you for a ride.”
The doctor hops on and the camera accelerates in front of the motorbike. Now they’re going down a tan mountain road, both sides have tall green cover. There is traditional agriculture alongside the mountain’s overgrowth. They ride past children. In the distance are mountains, they pass fields of corn, they’re driving above a river. They pass a semi truck.
A voice over begins: “The hand lit up by fate, erects 42 windmills for me, the steady flow of nature, the universe stems from balance, the nearby planets stem from echoes, swamps stem from the sleeplessness on the land, wrinkles stem from the sea, ice stems from wine, the emergency light on the staircase of time seeps into the gaps in the stones where I wrote my poems, there is bound to be one who will return to fill an empty bamboo basket with love, there is bound to be a crumbling of clay as the valley unfolds like an opening fist.”
They keep driving the doctors looks off, they pass road signs, and then they slow down.
The bike stops.
“Is this it?” The doctor asks.
“They’re all Miao people.”
“They play the Lusheng?”
He steps off the motorbike.
“How much is it?”
“Twenty, I thought it was five?”
“You shouldn’t believe that lot, they would have taken you somewhere and robbed you clean.”
“Pricey for such a small place.”
The doctor hands over the money and begins to walk towards a house where the Miao people live.
In front of the house, there’s a parked pickup truck. The hood is propped open.
The camera pans around the truck, a quartet of musicians loading instruments onto the truck.
The doctor asks a group of men that are seated and playing cards, “Do you know the Miao masters who play the Lusheng?”
The men confer. “Lusheng pipes.”
The doctor spits. A man leaves the house holding clippings. “What’s up?”
The doctor says, “I’m looking for a group of Miao who can play the Lusheng. Do you know who they are?”
“They are not here at the moment. None of these youngsters can play.”
The doctor looks around, “Is there a bus to Zhenyuan today?”
“You’re going to Zhenyuan?”
“The pickup is going once it is fixed. It’s not far. It’s on the other side of the river. I’ll have a word with them and you can go in the truck.”
The men walk to the pickup truck. The musicians are loading gear.
The man approaches the driver.
“Hey Pisshead, can you take this down the river? Thanks.”
“It’s fully loaded in the front, but you can squeeze in the back with them.”
“I hope it’s not too much trouble.”
The musicians smile, “No trouble at all, we’re going to a gig.”
“Thanks very much.” They help the doctor onto the bed of the pickup.
The musicians pile in.
“Let’s go Pisshead.”
The truck begins to roll away and the camera follows at a distance.
Back on the mountain road, the doctor asks, “What kind of music do you play?”
“It was supposed to be for our teacher. But he went to pay respects to his master who died today.”
“He can only sing traditional Miao songs.”
The truck moves through a town, two and three storey buildings, sheet metal roofs, and cinderblock walls. They pass wooden buildings on stilts above the river, and buildings with flat concrete faces.
“It’s rare for us to get a chance to play pop songs. Do you know any pop songs?”
“No I can only sing children’s songs.”
“Children’s songs? We know a few of those.”
“Listen to this.”
They begin to play, and the truck weaves through the town along a road with a stone wall. There’s rubble beside construction sites. Laborers carry heavy bags of cement mix. Children play beside the road. And a dog wanders towards the truck. The band continues to play, and they pass onto a newly paved stretch. They pass more townspeople. The camera lags behind the truck and the mountains again come into view.The truck stops behind an obstacle.
The camera pans around the truck to reveal a figure standing in the center of the road. He has a bucket on his hand, and his feet are in a bucket. It’s the driver of the first motorbike. The other drivers rush to their motorbikes and, the first driver counts aloud, “1,2,3,4…”
The bikers drive off.
The doctor asks, “Can you pull over please?”
The truck stops and he gets off. He walks off to the first driver, still counting.
“What’s all this? You’re making a right fool of yourself. Why do you let them bull you like this”
He helps the driver out of the bucket. “Who are you?”
The doctor asks, “Did you draw this watch on your wrist?”
The doctor pulls the bucket off his head. “Why do they bully you like this? Did you steal from them?”
“No. They wanted to take my binoculars.”
“Why do you let them bully you like this?”
The driver hands him a pair of binoculars.
“They’ve locked my motorbike again.”
“Locked your motorbike?”
He hands him the binoculars. “Hold onto this. I’ll unlock it if you give me a ride to the station.
“The station? Where are you going?”
“I can only take you as far as the river. Then you can take a boat. There’s no train station here.”
“No station? I need you to help me find a tailor too. I need to sew on a few buttons. They fell off on the ride over here.”
They tie the buckets back on the motorbike, and the doctor unlocks the clasp.
He says, “Try it now.’
“It should work now. Let’s push it up there first.”
They push the bike. “Try not to piss them off next time.”
“I’m just outnumbered that’s all.”
The driver rights the motorbike. He checks the gauges. “All set.” He climbs on. The doctor walks around the bike.
The driver attempts to start the bike, but it doesn’t catch. “Hop on.”
“Your engine dies very easily.”
He gets on. “Drive slowly.”
“Move back a little.”
“Why won’t it start?”
“Hang on. It’s just old, that’s all.”
The motorbike starts. “Drive slowly.”
They drive towards the river down a narrow road.
Then, at a corner, the camera turns and leave’s their progress. The camera moves down a staircase through the town. It pans across the central market area, we see the pickup truck from before parked in front of vendors, and then the motorbike drives back into the frame. The camera resumes following the bike.
The motorbike pulls to a stop in front of a row of food stalls.
The driver says, “Grab something to eat while you’re waiting.”
The doctor asks, “What’s there to eat around here?”
“Just a quick bite. This is all there is.”
The doctor walks around the tables with food. “Two bowls of rice noodles please.”
A woman hands him bowls of rice noodle soup. Behind him, the musicians begin to unload the pickup truck.
The driver walks over and sits next to the doctor
He says, “This place looks a lot like Kaili.”
“Kaili? Have you been there?”
“No, but Yangyang’s going there soon.”
“You’ll see her in a minute.”
“What’s your name?”
“Call me Chen.”
“Yangyang is going to be a tour guide in Kaili”
The men eat rice noodle soup.
“I know her Kaili guidebook by heart.”
“Kaili lies in the Southeast Asian tropical monsoon zone.”
“The average temperature is 16.8 to 18.5 degrees Celsius.”
“The warmest month is July.”
The camera follows Pisshead walking away from the pickup.
He walks to a vendor, “I need two jin of liquor in a large plastic bottle.”
A man in shorts walks over, “Take this one Pisshead, I measured it out earlier for someone else.”
“Go easy on that stuff.”
“Put it on my tab. I’m off.”
Pisshead walks past the stalls, into town.
He walks to a window.
“Did you finish ironing my clothes Yangyang?”
Yangyang sits eating soup. “Just a second.”
“Fetch my clothes then you can finish eating lunch, I need to rush home.”
Yangyang stands. She walks to the back of the room and grabs a pile of clothes.
“Going home today?”
“Yeah. That’s why I need my clothes.”
She returns to her lunch. Then stands and retrieves her sewing kit.
The driver walks up, “Yangyang, can you sew two buttons on for my friend from Kaili here?”
“I’m from Kaili too,” she smiles
The driver grabs a shirt.
“Wait I haven’t finished with that one yet.”
“Come in and take off your shirt.”
The doctor walks over.
A voice interjects, “Yangyang has the water boiled yet?”
The camera pans through the street of the town.
“Let me know when it’s ready,” says her neighbor, a hair stylist.
“That one almost went in.”
Two men shoot pool.
The neighbor hangs laundry. They’re on a terrace overlooking the town.
The camera wanders back through the streets of the town, the neighbor speaks with Yangyang at the window. “Yangyang I’ve come for the hot water.”
She hands over a bag of hot water.
The doctor stands at the back of the shop. Yangyang sews buttons on his shirt.
He borrows a shirt and walks after the neighbor. As he walks out into the light of the village street, the camera reveals marks left on his back from traditional cupping acupuncture.
He throws on the shirt and walks through the quiet village.
He stops at a door.
“We’re about about to close,” says the stylist.
The doctor enters for a haircut.
Yanyang walks past, “Are you going to see the band?”
“Just after I close up here.”
The camera follows Yangyang as she walks away from the shop. The driver asks, “Where are you going?”
“To the other side of the river.”
“I’ll give you a ride.”
“No need,” she says as she picks up clothes from the shop.
She walks past an elderly man working with a hoe in the garden. Flowers and vines grow on an arbor. She walks down to the river, children play on the rocks.
She steps onto a ferry, “The other side.”
The ferryman pushes off, a man rows, as she puts a blue shirt on over her white blouse. The ferry idles in the center of the river. It’s a dark brown color. The sky in the distance is gray and mountains loom on the horizon.
Yangyang takes out a guidebook, she consults it, and begins to intone along with the voice of the ferryman, “Kaili borders Taijiang and Leishan to the east, Maijiang and Danzhai to the south, Fuquan to the west, and Huangping to the north. Kaili’s coordinates are 1076 40’ 58’’ to 1086 12’ 9’’ east. The city spans 51.76km from east to west, and 44.3km from north to south. The northwest, southwest, and southeast areas are at a higher altitude than the central and northeastern areas.”
The boatman ferryman takes over the narration, shouting from the back of the boat as he rows “Kaili borders Taijiang and Leishan to the east. “
She continues, “The highest point is 1447 meters, the lowest 532 meters. The average altitude is 850 meters. The terrain is hilly with elevations of low to medium height. Kaili is in the mid-subtropical warm and humid climate zone, and has an average temperature of 13.5 to 15.2 degrees Celsius.”
The ferryman continues, “The warmest month is July.”
She continues, “An average temperature of 13.5 to 15.2 degrees Celsius.
He speaks, “ with a mean temperature of 23.2 to 25.8 degrees Celsius.”
She echoes, “The warmest month is July with a mean temperature of 23.2 to 25.8 degrees Celsius. The coldest month is January with a mean temperature of 2.6 to 5.2 degrees Celsius. The climate is moderate with four distinct seasons”
She checks her guidebook.
“And the average annual rainfall is 1240.1mm, making the region suited to agriculture forestry and animal husbandry.”
They arrive at the dock on the other side of the river, and she steps off the ferry.
She thanks the ferrymen.
Now Yangyang walks to a vendor who is seated by the river with a display of party favors for a festival.
“How much for the windmills?”
“How about three yuan?”
“I can’t sell for that.”
“Go on, three yuan.” Yangyang takes out her money.
“These are for children, not adults.”
“I like them. I’ll take this one.” She hands over the money and reaches down to pick up a toy windmill.
As Yangyang walks up the road from the river, she blows on the toy.
The driver is seated on his haunches. “It only works when it’s windy,” he says.
She shakes the toy back and forth. And he takes it from her hand. They walk up the road.
Yangyang turns up a flight of stone stairs, and the driver runs along the road to catch up.
They pass a warehouse, with boxes for the market.
Yangyang walks past a pile of building materials. Wood and bricks and stone, and pallets.
The driver starts his motorcycle and invites Yangyang to hop on.
In the distance there is the sound of a train.
“A train,” she says.
They listen for a long moment, to the low sound of the train’s whistle.
Yangyang turns, “I’m going to watch the concert.”
She walks by a garden to a bridge over the river, the driver rides ahead and steps off his motorcycle.
She walks by chickens and a cat.
“I’ll make you one later,” he says, “motioning to the toy.” The wheel detached.
She walks ahead over a wooden suspension bridge.
He follows on foot with his bike.
They pass above the ferry on the river below.
“When are you going to Kaili?” He asks.
“How about I go with you?”
She taps the toy along the wires of the suspension bridge.
The bridge ends by the market on the other side of the river.
Yangyang skips ahead.
She walks to her neighbor’s barbershop. The doctor is in the chair.
“I’m going to the concert now,” she says.
“You go on ahead. I’m almost done.”
The camera leaves Yangyang and returns to the doctor.
The hair stylist begins to rinse his hair over a basin.
“Round here we say only criminals put their hands behind their backs like that.” She motions to him holding his hands as she rinses his hair.
“Oh,” he drops his hands to his sides.
“Why is that?”
“Old folks say that’s what the fugitives who were exiled here did.”
She towels off his hair.
The doctor begins to speak, “I once had a friend who met his wife in a disco.”
The camera pans to watch her dry his hair in the mirror. “After they got married they lived in a tiny room next to a very noisy waterfall. So they only danced. They never talked. Because their voices would be drowned out by the sound of the waterfall. One day, his wife got seriously ill. He was broke. So he borrowed money from a former gang leader. The gang leader’s son was buried alive by one of his enemies. Before burying his son alive, they cut off his hand. The gang leader accepted his son’s death as normal in his line of work. But he couldn’t come to terms with his son’s hand being cut off. So my friend helped the gang leader get revenge for what had happened to his son. He was then sentenced to nine years in prison. He got divorced and left his wife everything. When he got out of jail he discovered his wife had passed away.”
“Didn’t he hear from his wife in prison?”
The doctor rubs his eyes, “Who knows?”
He continues, “He often got letters from his wife in jail. In her last letter to him she wrote that she wanted to see the sea.”
“I want to see the sea too,” Says the stylist.
“There was a pond near the prison, that had been dyed blue by mercury from a mine. ”
“Were there dolphins in the pond?”
“Dolphins? It was full of chemicals. Dolphins wouldn’t have survived in there.”
“Turn the lights off”
“Turn the lights off.”
He stands to turn off the lights, it takes two trys with the switch.
“Give me your hands.”
She hands him a flashlight.
“You’re married?” He asks.
She holds his hands with the flashlight.
“That’s what it looks like when you see dolphins.”
“The show is about to start. Your hair is clean now.’
She takes off her apron.
“Are you going to watch the show? They’re playing pop music today.”
The camera follows her down the narrow village street. She runs ahead past chickens and food stalls. The band is set up in the center of the market. She walks past a woman carrying large containers, and a folded mat. Children sit on stools eating food from paper plates. Men stand at the back of the crowd with arms folded. The stylist stands next to Yangyang in the front of the crowd.They clap their hands in time with the music.
The doctor comes up behind them and stands watching the band.
“I feel a bit strange,” says the stylist.
“I’m feeling strange,” she points to her head.
The driver is in the crowd beside Yangyang, he has fixed the windmill toy.
“I am going to sing a song for you,” says the doctor.
The doctor walks up beside the band. He stands next to the microphone, “I am going to sing, “Little Jasmine.””
The band grins. They rearrange themselves around the doctor.
The drummer counts off and the band begins to play.
The doctor sings in a plaintive register, moving in and out of a falsetto.
The music is sweet and simple. The camera pans over the crowd and into the sky.
The band smiles, and the doctor closes his eyes as he sings.
The driver runs up to the doctor and touches him on the shoulder, “You’ll miss the boat if you don’t leave now.”
They walk to the bike. The driver hands Yangyang the windmill.
“Wait a minute.”
“I’ll wait for you at the top,” says the doctor.
“Take this red luck charm, and your engine won’t die on you anymore,” says Yangyang.
The doctor talks to the stylist. “You like pop songs don’t you? Here this tape is for you.”
He hands her a tape from his bag.
This tape is Li Tailing’s farewell.
The band continues to play and the doctor walks upwards on a narrow stair through the center of the town.
At the top, the doctor turns up a shady green road, he walks past crops and chickens.
The driver arrives, “Hop on.”
He jumps on the back.
The engine won’t start.
“Not again. That luck charm Yangyang gave me hasn’t worked.”
Then the engine catches. They drive past old stone walls along a row of low trees. They pass a construction site. The roofs along the river are steep and lined with terracotta tiles.
“Chen, I’ll take you as far as the Dangmai river, and then I’ll be on my way.“I’m going further along to draw on the trains.”
“Draw on the trains?”
“Yangyang says she’ll only come back from Kaili if I can turn back time.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I am going to do exactly that.”
The music begins to swell. They’re driving on a well paved road through the mountains. The camera follows at a distance. The sky is grey, and the mountains are dark and green.
“The train that transports coal from Kaili stops at Dangmai. I’m going to draw a clock on each train. And the clocks will be connected. We often get wild men following people around here. So be careful while you’re waiting for the boat by the river. I’ll tie sticks to your elbow later.”
“Wooden sticks, I’ll tie them to your elbows. Wild men can’t tell the difference between a person’s back and a person’s front. First he’ll follow you quietly, then grab a hold of you from behind. Once he’s got hold of you, the sticks on your elbows will tickle his armpits. That’ll make him laugh. That’s when you make a run for it.”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
“Weiwei? It’s like being in a dream.”
The mountains are enormous all around them, reaching up into the dark cloudy sky.
The shot captures several distinct aspects of a certain kind of long-take. It’s tight and choreographed. It feels meticulously planned.
The effect is captive movement through time.
Diegesis and mimesis generally overlap in cinematic long-takes, as narrative meaning-making collides with streams of visual imagery.
Gan Bi draws on both of these traditions, leaning towards the spinning plates sensation of criss-crossing storylines, generating mystery and dissonance.
When I was watching this film, I remembered that Henry James short story, The Figure in the Carpet, the young writer seeking a thread of meaning, and the way expansive literature draws readers through years with the sensation that something is maybe occurring.
The more heavily mimetic long-take generally focuses on repetition and slowness. This is the classic long-take, where nothing much happens, and there is this expansive unfolding in “nothing much.” This is the cinema of Chantal Ackerman, in the tradition of minimalism and repetition.
I watched and rewatched Michael Snow’s Wavelength because of its enormous sense of expansiveness. In Snow’s film, the camera slowly zooms across an empty apartment over the course of 45 minutes. At times Snow modulates the sound and picture in random warpings. He introduces “characters” a “dead man,” discovered in the empty apartment, comically outlining the barest foundations of a “plot.” But the film is an exercise in reflection. And it plays like a gift.
Gan Bi’s Kaili Blues owes more to the long-take of Miklós Jancsó. One compelling aspect of this 45 minute bravura shot, is the way it establishes a defined field of signification, and then moves characters across this field. Jancsó, and others, certain Panic Cinema filmmakers, frequently returned to elaborate productions within confined geographical areas. This field, sometimes a physical field or meadow, evokes play and children’s games.
In Kaili Blues, we leave this shot with a very clearly defined sense of the geographical ambits of this little Chinese village. And although, these are enormously distorted, the ability to close your eyes and experience movement across this space generates another kind of expansiveness.