×

Film Review: ‘Kaili Blues’

A doctor travels to his hometown to rescue his nephew, in the process confronting his traumatic past, in Chinese director Bi Gan’s aesthetically remarkable debut.

With:
Chen Yongzhong, Zhao Daqing, Luo Feiyang, Xie Lixun, Zeng Shuai, Qin Guangqian, Yu Shixue, Guo Yue, Liu Linyang, Yang Zuohua. (Mandarin, Kaili dialogue)
Release Date:
May 20, 2016

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4613272/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Kaili Blues'

Reviewed at Metrograph, New York, May 12, 2016. Running time: 113 MIN. (Original title: “Lu Bian Ye Can”)

Production: (China) A Grasshopper Films release of a Heaven Pictures, the Movies Co., Blackfin Culture & Media Co., China Film Intl. Media Co. presentation. (International sales: Jack Lee, Dan Zhu, Shanghai.) Produced by Wang Zijian, Shan Zuolong, Li Zhaoyu. Executive producers, Edward Ding, Shen Yang.

Crew: Directed, written by Bi Gan. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Wang Tianxing; editor, Qin Yanan; music, Lim Giong; production designer, Zhu Yun; set decorator, Zhu Yun; costume designer, Lu Zhou; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Liang Kai; re-recording mixers, Lou Kun, Zhang Mingxi; visual effects supervisor, Lai Xuezhong; visual effects, Beijing Blackfin Culture & Media Co., LTD; line producers, Sun Hui, Zeng Shuai, Zhang Tuoyu; associate producers, Wang Jianguo, Yang Kaizhen, Lian Weiliang, Huang Xiaohai, Li Tingting; assistant director, Yang Xiao; casting, Yu Shixue.

With: Chen Yongzhong, Zhao Daqing, Luo Feiyang, Xie Lixun, Zeng Shuai, Qin Guangqian, Yu Shixue, Guo Yue, Liu Linyang, Yang Zuohua. (Mandarin, Kaili dialogue)

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content