KAILI BLUES: Stunning Debut From Bi Gan

Kaili Blues is a magnificent contrast of “show” and “tell” as carefully delineated compositions into a freewheeling travelogue. We’re lulled into an aquatic setting of a provincial mainland (set, and shot on location in the Kaili, and Zhenyuan) province, where Chen Shen runs a small medical practice with an elder practitioner named Guanglin.

Chen, recently released from a nine-year stint in prison (reasons best revealed at the films behest) is played by Yongzhong Chen, a fresh face regarding his actor’s resume; and yet he carries a dignified weariness, dangerous but stately and honest. His gaze is piercing, and his face is that carved from a totem pole – an autochthonous, compelling figure whose screen presence is captivating.

Chen looks after his nephew Weiwei, who’s regularly neglected by his unpredictable criminal brother, aptly known as Crazyface. When Chen learns that Crazyface has sold Weiwei to a watchmaker in Zhenyuan, he embarks on a rescue mission to collect his nephew. When his colleague discovers this, she also administers Chen with a mission to fulfill, entrusting Chen with some sentiments to give to a former lover who is said to reside in the same town.

The Beauty of Time and Motion

Shot with the eye of a diamond cutter, the first act is a measured orientation of beautiful, immersive compositions that serve as an atmospheric backdrop for getting acquainted with our characters. Kaili Blues gives the impression that it’s in the same mold as Weerasethakul, Sokurov, Jiangke, Hsiao-Hsien, and I will admit that the writing’s on the wall (literally in some scenes); but Bi Gan strikes his own chords with character and definition seldom seen in first feature films.

Sure, our modern consensus deems these directors as the artistically relevant forebearers of challenging cinema. Their agenda of “art, for art’s sake” feels self-satisfying; Bi Gan’s debut is boxed in among the likes of aforementioned figures, but Kaili Blues offers an invigorating narrative eschewing our concept of the modern art film. The director’s aesthetic is beautifully expressive; the film is a technically adventurous exploration on the meditation of time, life, crime, redemption, and family.

KAILI BLUES: Stunning Debut From Bi Gan
source: Grasshopper Film

In short talking, one could say that Bi Gan has honed a vision that enables us the ability to have our cake and eat it too. Art and entertainment can coexist in Bi Gan’s temperament, coalescing with a thriller storyline that withstands treatise of the nature of time and identity.

In the first thoughtful act of Kaili Blues, we are introduced to the characters, the significance of the setting, a myriad hallucinatory foreshadowing, immersive atmosphere, technical prowess exercised to its fullest potential; I would support all of the above. With Bi Gan, being a Chinese director, it would be easy to liken his collected compositions as the result of finely honed influential apex. Though I would posture that Kaili Blues is the product of a singular new talent to have circumvented the obligatory shortcomings that daunt a debut picture, by crossing the thematic gulf between art and entertainment.

The Weightless Camera – Kaili to Zhenyuan

When Chen makes his journey to Zhenyuan, the narrative ramps into a propulsive momentum, part of this undoubtedly a result of an astonishing staged tracking shot clocking in at around forty minutes. But the principal engaging force lies in the developed protagonist, engaging story, and enveloping utilization of the film’s locations. Chen arrives at Zhenyuan, and we follow him traversing the backroads riding on scooters, skittering around the riverside community, kids around the snooker table, catching a paddle boat ferry, a small rock band playing in the street – and it’s all part of an expertly staged, unostentatiously uninterrupted run of the camera.

KAILI BLUES: Stunning Debut From Bi Gan
source: Grasshopper Film

Kaili Blues has the weight and filmic diction of dreamily conceived poetry, but there is depth and gravity tying this amalgamation of humbly disciplined aesthetic regalia. The narrative is involving, playing to a universal desire that lies in our sensibilities, the need for closure in saving the innocent: Chen’s nephew.

While Bi Gan draws influence from luminaries of Chinese cinema such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming Liang, Kaili Blues feels more akin to the spirited acumen that drove the early works of the nouvelle vague. I feel like if Godard or Truffaut were helming their feature debut in 2015, they too would be using HD cameras attached to motorbikes, drones (I’m guessing here in regards to the forty minute long take), and pushing the boundaries of film much in the same way. However much analogous tethering we can posture on the genesis of Kaili Blues, it’s more logical to praise the originality that emits from the stunning achievement of this debut film.

A New Voice in Cinema

Culled from the aquatic dreamscapes of a socio/politically conscious Chinese poet and with the veracity of a veteran storyteller, Kaili Blues is an achievement that stands above films of its kind for exceeding the aesthetic brevity that stands before it. It is immersive, fresh, unpredictable, and heartfelt.

The tenor of contemporary artistic cinema can be pretentious and dissonant; however, Bi Gan’s aesthetic contemplations suggest a great deal of empathy toward his subjects. His proclivity toward realistic, gritty (criminal element) material provides what looks like a bright future for this director.

Some issues lie for debut directors lie in the creative voice, establishing a rapport with the audience, refining their technical prowess, or landing on a style that suits their vision. Kaili Blues doesn’t suffer from any of those pitfalls, and in fact feels far more advanced than that of a seasoned pro.

Taking cues from the old and new schools, Kaili Blues works not because of the forty minute take, but because of the assured perspicacity of thematic fortitude.

What did you think of Kaili Blues? What are some of the best debut films?

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