Zhao Dayong’s magisterial docu “Ghost Town” minutely examines the day-to-day doings in the dying town of Zhiziluo, in the mountains of China’s Yunan province. At a leisurely 172 minutes, the pic takes on the desultory rhythms of rural stagnation, its rigorous compositions imparting aesthetic weight and meditative scope to everything in its purview. The camera might as easily linger on a bunch of dogs warily sniffing each other as on emotionally charged human interactions. Niche item’s appeal should not be particularly affected by its length, which may even enhance its arthouse cachet.
Zhao divides his docu into three parts, proceeding from the town’s oldest inhabitants to its youngest. The first, “Voices,” centers on estranged father-and-son pastors whose different historical experiences manifest themselves in theological disputes over music. The father, imprisoned for 25 years because of his beliefs, passionately clings to the cultural biases of his European missionary teachers, while his son blends Christian spiritual values with Chinese customs. Yet despite the bitter generational divides caused by China’s extreme policy shifts, the small rituals of making tea or leafing through a Bible give rise to a serenity that infuses all corners of Zhiziluo.
That serenity absorbs the shock of the multiple domestic dramas in the docu’s second section, “Recollections.” An abandoned husband, neglecting his pigs, turns instead to drink — the reason his wife left him in the first place. A young woman with a baby, back to visit her family, decries the swindlers who tricked her into a loveless marriage far away. A struggling truck driver, unable to find parts for his ramshackle vehicle, is forced to depart for the city and abandon his girlfriend, whose destitute parents are considering selling her as a bride to a couple of outsiders. None of these twentysomethings can remain in Zhiziluo.
In the third part, “Innocence,” a 12-year-old boy, left behind when his parents were uprooted years ago, survives by trapping and eating small birds, his energy and tumbling interaction with other village kids engaging the camera in constant movement, in contrast with the stasis of the rest of the film. Zhao thematically comes full circle to pagan and religious iconography as the boy participates in a fiery ghost exorcism, then slips into church to sing Christian hymns.
The ironic final images fix upon a large white statue of Mao Zedong, his arm raised in benediction, but with his back to the town.