The epic road trip of gifted Chinese post-punk band P.K. 14 is given radical cinematic treatment in “Are We Really So Far From the Madhouse?” One of China’s most inventive rising filmmakers, Li Hongqi (“Winter Vacation”), flexes his filmmaking muscles by rethinking the music doc from the ground up. Li’s typically deadpan wit comes across here in unexpected ways, which will strike chords with progressive and music-specialty fests worldwide.
A Redflag Films/Egosum production. Produced by Alex Chung.
On the surface, nothing seems particularly unusual about the first moments of a film about a band that fans in the West have known for only a couple of years, though it’s been a fixture of mainland China’s alt scene for more than a decade. The bandmates (singer Yang Haisong, guitarist Xu Bo, bassist Shi Xudong and drummer Jonathan Leijonhufvud, on crutches with a broken leg) hang out in a hotel room, chatting away. But it soon becomes clear that the scene lacks any sound sync; instead, various animal noises replace what dialogue there may be.
This opening sequence can take some getting used to, just as perhaps with any opening in a Li film, which always starts by throwing the viewer off-kilter. When the bandmates hit the truck-clogged highway in their cozy, humble van, their music takes over, and Li edits the sequences in a way that allows the songs (in subtitled Mandarin) to play from start to finish. The hypnotic flow of the journey meshes perfectly with the growling, semi-abstract washes of sound and words that characterize P.K. 14’s style (the band’s name is short for “Public Kingdom for Teens”). The images never serve as mere backdrop, but form a picture of an increasingly hyper-industrialized China in motion.
The film initially follows a pattern of images of the group on the road (in color), and off the road (in black-and-white), but shifts emphasis and tone once the focus is on the gigs, which Li shoots and constructs in characteristically unconventional modes. For one thing, the animal soundtrack continues just when music would be anticipated, and when the music is heard, it’s deliberately out of sync with the picture. Even this disconnect isn’t entirely clear until the end of an extended, ultra-long shot of the hard-working group led by Yang’s impassioned vocals.
This fascinating separation of image and sound makes “Are We Really So Far From the Madhouse?” (the title of one of the group’s most popular tracks) one of the more striking and distinctive films about musicians of any stripe in recent years. If the group’s music is post-punk, then Li’s filmmaking here is post-Godard, in the sense of how the auteur reframed and rejiggered the Rolling Stones in his “One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil).”
Li’s lensing is resolutely rough and unrefined, offering up quite a different look from the fixed, neutral perspectives in his narrative features. Pic will certainly open up a new audience for the band, as well as its offshoot, the more lyrical two-person unit Dear Eloise, heard here on some lovely tracks that bring fine sonic variety to the overall soundtrack.