Internationally acclaimed print-maker and installation artist Xu Bing has come to cinema relatively late in life, which is all the more reason why his feature debut “Dragonfly Eyes” disappoints with its unsatisfying combination of an ultra-banal narrative told in a formally original way. The concept is bold: Xu and his assistants culled through approximately 10,000 hours of surveillance videos sitting in the cloud and edited bits together to make a cohesive story voiced by actors. Putting aside how daunting it must have been to process so much staggeringly dull footage, the conceit could have been interesting, potentially offering opportunities to comment on everything from the lack of privacy in the modern world to the level of violence around us.
While Xu includes a fair amount of disturbing video clips of car accidents, suicides and general disasters, the story he chooses to extricate from all those hours (blessedly cut down to less than 90 minutes) is little more than a soap opera reaching for social commentary. Unlike Gustav Deutsch’s “World Mirror Cinema,” which drove home the idea that every passerby in a scrap of non-fiction film had a life of unimaginable complexity, “Dragonfly Eyes” eliminates interest in the people often only fuzzily distinguishable in the surveillance footage: It’s as if a critique designed to point out society’s corrupted perception of privacy and reality was made by a misanthrope. Given Xu’s reputation in the art world, his film will likely get considerable traction at art showcases and festivals projecting a cutting-edge aura.
Here’s the story: Qing Ting (voiced by Liu Yongfang) is an emotionally fragile, plain-faced (we’re constantly told) young woman who leaves her training at a Buddhist monastery and gets a job in a dairy factory looking after cows. There she meets Ke Fan (voiced by Su Shangqing), an agricultural technician who follows her when she quits and moves cities. She loses her next job at a dry cleaners after being rude to an extravagantly entitled nouveau riche client, and becomes a waitress at a Western restaurant. Ke Fan doesn’t forgive the woman who was rude to his beloved, and he’s jailed for terrorizing the antagonist and her friends with his car. While he’s in the slammer, Qing Ting has plastic surgery and becomes an online chatroom celebrity named Xiao Xiao; once Ke Fan gets out, he realizes his beloved has changed identities, and is desperate to meet her.
Dissecting the run-of-the-mill melodramatic plot line, it’s easy to recognize critiques of reality TV, celebrity culture, the obsession with plastic surgery, and the strange isolating phenomenon of video chat rooms. Xu surely recognizes the triteness of the invented narrative (why else have a silly computer voice use the overwrought expression “the storyline swings into view”?), and of course melodrama has long been used as a subversive way to comment on societal problems. Yet given the film’s building blocks and their inherent lack of compositional interest, more than this ridiculous story would be needed to say anything beyond the most superficial observations on the state of the world.
Image quality is expectedly mixed, varying from hazy long-range B&W images to coldly crisp color. Though violent shots are a consistent presence, from road rage to suicide, Xu saves the most disturbing images for a final horrific montage of catastrophes, like a tidal wave of destruction exposing a savage anger that was only an undercurrent earlier. It must have been a monumental task choosing footage from the thousands of hours and then editing them into a storyline; whether the model will be followed by others remains to be seen.