A devoted son's virtually single-minded care for his slowly dying father is given similarly disciplined focus in He Yuan's gorgeous "Apuda."
A devoted son’s virtually single-minded care for his slowly dying father is given similarly disciplined focus in He Yuan’s gorgeous “Apuda.” Much like Harvard-based filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Elisa Barbash, who combine a highly sophisticated approach to filmmaking with scientific analysis, He is an ethnographic researcher at the Yunnan Academy of Sciences who also happens to be a documaker of considerable artistry. Pic’s length and extreme slowness will make it a more exotic item for art-centric and docu fests, but this gem shouldn’t be overlooked.
Originally from Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, He ventures north to embed himself in the Naxi-speaking hamlet of orchard farmer Ni’erba Apuda. Despite a mild mental disability, Apuda is able to keep up with his farm work until his father, a man of indeterminate age, struggles to get out of bed in the morning; when the father finally does rise, walk and even saunter outside, it feels almost miraculous. For anyone who’s ever cared for an infirm loved one, the unvarnished reality of Apuda’s day-to-day situation will seem painfully recognizable — a reality that’s typically compressed when depicted in a film, but played out here to extraordinary length.
Indeed, to carp about “Apuda’s” seemingly indulgent running time would ignore the film’s essential purpose, which is to immerse the viewer in its subject’s grueling life, including the long silences and slow dialogue that can ensue between caring child and dying parent. The director also intends to create, paradoxically, a world of beauty expressed in the gradually developing patterns of light that emerge and recede inside the family’s hovel. The effect isn’t to soften the grind of Apuda’s days and nights with an aesthetic gloss, but to suggest that beauty can be found everywhere.
He’s interior cinematography creates a nearly mystical atmosphere, with shadows sometimes blanketing the image and nearly obscuring bodies; at points, only Apuda’s exhausted voice and his father’s feeble utterances can pinpoint where they are onscreen. It’s as if He is making death visible.
The relatively brief sections outdoors among the fruit groves where Apuda tries to work feel like escapes into paradise after the sepulchral home setting. Yet even here, Apuda has amusing run-ins with other farmers, after which he mutters to himself, a habit that He regularly documents.