Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
Clearly influenced by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Andrei Tarkovsky, Gan Bi’s Kaili Blues boasts a contemplative rhythm of long takes which invokes greatly a sense of time’s passing while poetic language is heard via voice-over narration. Telling the story of two brothers who are at odds with one another, the film chronicles one, a doctor and uncle, who searches for his nephew after his brother, Crazy Face, attempts to sell him. There is really not much more to the narrative, and even this is more plot than the film truly exposes. In fact, Kaili Blues would readily be describes as an abject film drawn with the intentions to reject narration in lieu of poetic rhetoric and retroactive substance.
Most notable of the film is its incredible long-take, which takes up the second half of the film. This multi-sequence shot retains a constant sense of presence as it follows Doctor Chen through rural Taiwan in search of his nephew. Shot with a hand-camera while on and off a motorcycle, it shows Chen travel great distances by car, motorcycle, and foot. The shot sometimes leaves the protagonist to follow other characters only to later reinstate its vision of Chen. One girl leaves the screen to be seen a few minutes later eating; the camera follows her for a while as Chen gets a haircut. Everything here is in perfect time and choreography, never missing a beat. The only jarring aspect of this memorable long take is the photographic distortion which occurs when the focus is being adjusted. This sometimes creates an odd and disorienting aesthetic wherein one side of the frame looks closer than the other before toggling back to normal. This is all to say that while the long take is affective, it proves itself to be a mere experiment of an amateur.
Kaili Blues focuses much on movement, distance, and location. It gives a sense of the countryside through showing in stark close-up the atmosphere it emits. The film feels unbiased, unstaged, and even unscripted, with the long-take in particular appearing rather spontaneous. A kinetic approach to visual language is found in the many dash-cam and motorcycle tracking shots, which often invoke aesthetic qualities reminiscent of the great Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien. In particular, the near final shot of a train exiting a tunnel as the camera tracks along the railroad into the distance echoes highly the opening tracking shots of Goodbye, South, Goodbye, and Dust in the Wind, which both feature trains, railways, and tracking motion.
The strongest motif in Kaili Blues is that of time. Besides its use of long-takes, the film displays many images of clocks, including a shadow on a windshield and an impression on a darkened window. Both these shots are seen near the end of the film and are quite clearly intended to provide a thematic tie in to what we have seen before. Having left jail not too long before, the passing of time is found especially relevant to Chen, who is revealed as a man eager to save every precious moment of life he has left. Such is the film’s tender spirit, to capture and convey the tiny moments found in the everyday.
The film’s tender spirit is to capture and convey the tiny moments found in the everyday.