Perhaps the most radical pic yet dreamed up by perhaps the most radical filmmaker presently working in Mainland China, Cui Zi’en’s “The Narrow Path” is a minimalist sci-fi allegory that will fascinate the underground, openly gay helmer’s followers as much as it will confound non-initiates. Likely to be limited to the same fests and cinematheques that have programmed Cui’s earlier work, pic’s extreme openness in regard to sexuality and copious on-screen nudity will ensure its talking-point status wherever and whenever it surfaces.
Already famous for the economy and speed of his production methods — his first feature to receive significant fest exposure, 2002’s “Enter the Clowns,” was made in five days for under $5,000 — Cui comes close to outdoing himself with “The Narrow Path.” The entire feature was shot on a July morning in 2003 and was originally conceived as a single continuous take, a la “Russian Ark” and “Timecode,” though a series of production glitches resulted in a final film that consists of five long shots edited together instead.
A completely naked young man walks down a long, winding mountain road toward the camera while warbling, “I fell from Venus; the Earth is not my hometown.” This continues for nearly seven minutes, at which point the first man is joined by a second, also fully nude, who declares: “I fell from Uranus; the Earth is not my hometown.”
Then, 15 minutes in, a third man, hailing from Neptune, adds his voice to the chorus, followed shortly thereafter by a visitor from Pluto. These self-proclaimed aliens continue their forward march until, roughly halfway through pic’s running time, they find themselves accosted by a pack of human bullies (one played by Cui himself), who rough them up and demand ownership stakes in the aliens’ respective planets.
Fortunately, in the world of “The Narrow Path,” the rulers of said planets — all of whom happen to be named Jesus — are just a cell phone call away. Meanwhile, one of the humans, Xiao Bo (frequent Cui collaborator Yu Bo) begins to take his own clothing off in evident envy of the aliens’ nonviolent lifestyle.
Whereas Cui’s earlier films tend to be packed with narrative incident, “The Narrow Path” is as singular in its focus as its title perhaps suggests. Indeed, the unchanging nature of pic’s setting and infrequency of new visual information end up being crucial to a film that is, ultimately, an elaborately conceived metaphor for the confrontation of conformity and nonconformity in present-day Chinese society. It is, in short, a film that acknowledges, even as it is unfolding before our eyes, the impossibility of its own exhibition in its country of origin.