A 10-issue magazine dedicated to cinema in Asia

Ephemeral singularities of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues and Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray

by Konstantin Ignatushchenko

Any kind of categorization of cinema according to the region of its origin is automatically fallacious but at the same time it’s hard not to notice that the discourse that places Asian cinema as blossoming and innovative in comparison to repetitive and stagnating Western (European and American) cinema has been going on since the 1990s (Chinese 5th generation, Taiwanese New Wave, etc.). However, it reached a new peak after the two consecutive triumphs of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters (Japan) and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (Korea) at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In terms of wide critical acclaim from the biggest European film festivals in the last few years, many Asian titles can be mentioned: among others, Manta Ray (Thailand), Burning (Korea), An Elephant Sitting Still (China), A Land Imagined (Singapore). Not to be overlooked are filmmakers who have become new icons of cinephilia such as Lav Diaz, Hong Sangsoo, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The high tide of new, distinctive voices and fresh talent coming from the Asian region has clearly been getting stronger in the last decade, and it’s important to concentrate on the works of newcomers who are developing a universal cinematic language in terms of their uniqueness: temporality and the dichotomic split of ephemerality vs. materiality of the medium.

Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (2015) is a perfect example of such work, as is his follow-up film Long Day’s Journey into the Night, in which the director refines the ideas and topics he started exploring in his debut feature. The earlier film gradually unfolds as a hypnotic story about the clash of traditions against urban amnesia, the ever-changing face of China, the world and consciousness. What starts as an ethnographic essay on the small Miao ethnic group slowly dissolves into the eternal unresolvability of existential questions about human memory, loss, and the difference between reality and dreams. In this work, geographical references and social commentaries are becoming a way to summon ghosts, resurrect illusions, and delineate a circle of unfulfilled hopes and memories. The climax is a 40-minute sequence shot as one take, in which the main character Chen, who goes in search of Wei Wei’s nephew (sold by his father to a watchmaker), meets his loved ones who have died a long time ago or perhaps have come from the future. With a low budget, Bi Gan is able to fulfill the potential of the medium, while excellent editing, camera work, and sound design capture a world that is limited and endless, lost and regained, beyond the stasis of time/history. The characters are doomed to find and meet each other, no matter how far (spatially and temporally) they are apart, whether or not they believe that such meetings are even possible. At the same time, the landscape hanging over them is only a part of the hallucinogenic, circular nature of history that is opposing and outrunning death. The director is sure that the only shelter for man in the eternal and cruel dance of reality and its peculiar transformations is a personal love story that’s been overheard on a road that is somehow always leading back home.

Equally enigmatic and mysterious is the debut work of a Thai director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, Manta Ray (2018), which illustrates the possibility of social commentary in the form of a poetic, metaphysical parable. While it starts as a story about a fisherman and a seemingly mute Rohingya refugee, Aroonpheng is more interested in questioning the relationship toward the Other, that constant silent and undecipherable presence. Thongchai (as the fisherman named him) will remain in his own silence until the end, not because of a lack of speech but due to the impossibility of a simple “yes” or “no.” This is a zero, which determines the symmetry of the system and at the same time, by its own lonely and indispensable failure to enter it, brings subversive asymmetry. The fluidity of time is essential to this work too. The temporal dimension of the film is not clear or straightforward but there is no place for breaks or gaps that define the connection between “I” and “the Other.” Instead, the jungles are tightly squeezing them first into a single space of “here and now” and into an indistinguishable personality afterwards. In the magical land of the shining stones that are growing out of the depths of the soil, barefoot people, chased by the spirit of the forest, gather those stones to throw them into the sea, while manta rays are dancing and flapping their fins like wings. It is a singular world that is divided, but this division is illusive, undetectable, and vague.

It remains to be seen whether such cinema of singularity, which captures the quantum-rhizomatic logic of the modern world built on simulacrums, prosthetic memories, and disorienting media noise in a manner that can be called “post-realism,” can adequately develop elsewhere—but for Asia this is already the current state of cinematic art.

Konstantin Ignatushchenko is a Russian freelance film critic who graduated from School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). Since then he has been covering international film festivals in India and Russia for the outlet and the website New Look Media.