Time plays in an endless loop in “Kaili Blues,” forcing audiences to constantly revisit, and reassess, the past. For a rural Chinese doctor, facing bygone traumas is both a literal and figurative, fugue-enshrouded act, and one that’s recounted by debut writer-director Bi Gan with trance-like grace, as his film segues seamlessly between reality and memory. An entrancing off-kilter trip through both internal and exterior landscapes where the old is being torn down in favor of the new, this import heralds an assured new cinematic voice, even if its oblique nature portends meager domestic theatrical prospects.
In the rundown province of Kaili, physician Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong) tends to patients with the aid of an elderly assistant (Zhao Daqing) with whom he discusses meaningful dreams involving deceased mothers’ shoes floating through the water, and long-lost lovers returning for visits. Amidst these trips down memory lane, Chen also contends with his ne’er-do-well half-brother Crazy Face (Xie Lixun), whose neglect of his young son Weiwei (Luo Feiyang) infuriates Chen for reasons at once obvious and mysterious. Their feud peaks when Chen learns that Crazy Face — more interested in playing cards and shooting pool with friends than caring for his progeny — has dumped Weiwei with Monk (Yang Zuohua), an elderly man who hails from Chen’s hometown of Zhenyuan.
This opening narrative material is elliptically edited, with the action flowing freely between points of interest whose connections are only subtly implied. In snippets of dialogue spread across various scenes, “Kaili Blues” gradually hints at details about Chen, from his prior prison stint, to his potential connection to Monk (a former gangster acquaintance with a tragedy-fostered fixation on watches), to his abandonment at the hands of his mother as a child. In doing so, it takes on the quality of a waking dream, one in which relationships and emotions are suggested — often via narrated readings of Chen’s mournful poetry — rather than overtly stated.
Determined to reclaim Weiwei, Chen embarks on a journey to Zhenyuan, and once there, “Kaili Blues” itself sets out on a 41-minute handheld single take that charts the protagonist’s path in and around the town of Dangmai. In this muddy locale, where new construction projects are taking place alongside dilapidated old structures — a development that echoes the impending demolition of Chen’s archaic Kaili house — the doctor hitches a ride on teenager’s (Yu Shixue) unreliable motorbike, travels for a brief time in a flatbed truck with a pop band (with whom he’ll later perform), has his shirt mended by a beautiful seamstress named Yangyang (Guo Yue) who plans to return to Kaili as a tour guide (and is being pursued by Yu’s biker), and gets his hair washed by a beautician (Liu Linyang).
During this tour-de-force sequence, Bi’s camera takes turns following not only Chen but the other men and women he encounters, in the process elucidating their strained relations, their yearning to escape their present environment and their possible connection to Chen — whose own backstory eventually emerges through an oblique tale he recounts about a former “friend.” Wang Tianxing and Liang Kai’s handheld cinematography often calls direct attention to itself, bobbing and jostling about as they mount or disembark from (their own unseen) vehicles, and dipping and swaying as they track their subjects through muddy streets and down narrow staircases. Yet such self-conscious messiness is married to masterful choreography, and lends the proceedings a precarious uneasiness that’s in tune with Chen’s predicament.
Throughout, Bi repeatedly indulges in circular imagery, including timepieces (both real and drawn on walls), buttons and 360-degree camera pans around downtrodden Kaili locales. Those sights speak to Chen’s recurring confrontation of inescapable old wounds (and attempts to not have Weiwei suffer the same fate he once did), just as moving trains function as counterbalancing symbols of time’s inexorable forward march. Led by performances imbued with barely concealed sorrow, regret and longing to come to terms with that which has been lost, “Kaili Blues” affords a view of people, and a nation, caught in between a haunting yesterday and — as implied by the film’s conclusion — a hopeful tomorrow.