Pic proceeds with virtually no exposition, except for the words supplied by survivors.
The title of Du Haibin’s striking documentary refers to the exact time (14:28) on May 12, 2008, when a massive 8.0 earthquake rocked China’s Sichuan province. Pic proceeds with virtually no exposition, except for the words supplied by survivors as they scramble to build a makeshift existence on the ruins. Visiting a devastated village 10 days and then 210 days after the quake, Du depicts, with immediacy and casual artistry, a wide range of human reactions to the natural and political aftershocks. Fascinating, beautifully crafted Venice prizewinner fully warrants an arthouse run.
In part one, filmed 10 days post-quake, stunned survivors of Beichuan township mechanically go about the tasks at hand: Women scrub clothes and recount their children’s deaths; villagers sift through debris for remnants of their homes and businesses; men attack slabs of concrete with sledgehammers, working for hours to harvest small metal scraps and lengths of wire. The faithful mourn the destruction of a temple, staring in dismay at a toppled Buddha. A family searches a dormitory for the belongings of their young son, lost somewhere with his classmates beneath a crushed schoolhouse.
Part two, some seven months later, finds great changes for some and “temporary” chaos for others in Beichuan. Houses have been razed to make way for new lodgings and farmlands repurposed as the foundation for a huge concrete-manufacturing factory. Du focuses on a few families that, for whatever reason, slipped through the relocation cracks, still living in tents and jerry-built shacks.
Like Zhao Dayong (who made the more formalistic village study “Ghost Town”), director Du remains open to peripheral goings-on, no matter what his immediate focus. Slogans, banners, TV newscasts, impromptu group discussions and passersby who air their grievances to the camera form multiple layers of discourse, unmediated even by background music.
To the likely surprise of American auds, villagers speak openly, careful only to preface their grumblings with qualifications about the general goodness of the Communist Party. They discuss widespread allegations that shoddy school construction caused thousands of children’s deaths, and bemoan that while Beichuan received merely adequate refurbishments, the nearby village of Mao Er Shi got deluxe treatment, making it a photo-op showcase for rural renovation.
But politics form only one thread in Du’s tapestry — less important, perhaps, than the figure that haunts the film from first image to last, a homeless man clad in trailing rags, his hair uncombed, his feet bare. Alone among all the film’s subjects, he returns the mute gaze of the camera with a questioning, oddly serene look, like some errant muse gone mad.