Absurd dreamlogic guides Zhang Yuedong’s ingeniously conceived and staged “Mid-Afternoon Barks,” a distinctive debut that doesn’t quite resemble any other Chinese pic out there. Zhang draws on his strong theatrical directing roots, with shades of Ionesco and Beckett informing a triptych that gently spoofs hyper-development in the greater Beijing metro area, as symbolized by the installation of electric wire posts. Deadpan humor and precise timing should be appreciated by hipper fests and urban markets, particularly in Euro zones west and east.
Zhang himself plays the lead in the opener, “The Village and the Stranger,” as a shepherd who leaves his flock behind to visit a small town somewhere on the capital’s fringes. The enchanting score by Xiao He (who also appears in two roles), brims with strange, percussive sounds and accompanies the sharply edited scenes (often punctuated by brief blackouts) as the shepherd wanders about.
The shepherd and his roommate (Qieli Dunzhu) find themselves ordered by the landlady (GaDi Qieli) to pay for their keep by installing a pole in the ground outside the lodge. Next morning, no such pole can be found. But in a clever moment that cues auds that this near-wordless piece is playing with perception, the shepherd wakes again and sees that he’s alone in his room, perhaps having had a dream within a dream. “City, Wood, Repairman” shifts focus from country to city, as three workers who look like they’re growing fatigued of being around each other (Han Dong, Chu Cheng, Gouzi) survey Beijing to install — you guessed it — poles. Zhang flirts with nearly total abstraction here, as a parallel narrative involving a repairman (Quan Ke) and a young guy (Xiao) suggests city men living lives of total, if amusing, aimlessness.
The triptych’s third frame, “Watermelon and Farmer,” feels closest to a theatrical piece. Xiao’s watermelon seller is beset by a series of annoying city folks, from a nightmarishly rude customer (Dong Zi) to pesky tykes to electrical wire engineers, who make the vendor move his rickety cart so they can connect the installed poles with electrical lines.
Zhang displays impressive confidence as a maker of rigorously visual comedy that demands attentive viewing, but rewards with a bounty of droll moments, capped by a conclusion that elegantly links the three sections. Perfs are in tune with the helmer’s absurdist perspective, the only tech flaw being dim vid lensing in low light conditions.