Tuesday, February 17, 2015

DF ’15: Haze and Fog

A community is not just an assemblage of condos. Frankly, the complex in question is more of a concentration of angst than a communal body. Notions of community and the lack thereof feature prominently in Cao Fei’s hybrid documentaries, with the emphasis placed squarely on the “hybrid.” Contemporary Chinese life gets a strange but true-in-spirit genre spin in Cao’s Haze and Fog (trailer here) and iMirror, which screen together during MoMA’s 2015 Documentary Fortnight.

Initially, Haze feels very much like a standard aesthetically severe observational documentary, except Cao seems to have an eccentric knack for focusing on dark, uncomfortable moments. We see a prostitute going about her 50 Shades business with clients in the building, security guards peeping on tenants, and a pregnant housewife engaging in self-destructive behavior. Perhaps Cao’s cast really is part of the building’s universe, but hopefully they are playing fictionalized roles.

Clearly, everyone is alienated to some extent, despite their close proximity. Gao uses their daily frustrations to critique an increasingly fractured Chinese society and the continuing conflict between empty consumerism and traditional values. Then Haze turns into a zombie film. For real. It is all part of the allegory, but the zombies do what zombies do.

This is a strange film—and a bold pick for Doc Fortnight. It clocks in just over an hour, but it is unlikely Cao could have sustained the weird, anesthetizing vibe and frequency of understated, untelegraphed WTF moments much longer. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking that keeps the audience off-balance from start to finish, but Cao also gets some notably sensitive performances from Wang Chenxu as the young single woman and Liu Lu as the expecting housewife.

iMirror also falls a good deal outside the traditional bounds of Fortnight selections, but it is more deliberately doc-ish. Cao, billed as “China Tracy,” her virtual handle, chronicles a relationship she had with the avatar of an older man from San Francisco, within the virtual reality world of Second Life (SL). It is not really a catfish story, because he was more-or-less who he claimed to be and it is understood that everyone constructs idealized versions of themselves. Yet, it got pretty real, even though it wasn’t.

The second part of iMirror focusing on China Tracy’s virtual something with the younger and then older looking Hug Yue is considerably stronger than parts one and three, which mostly just establish the issues and environment of SL. Naturally, the animation looks very computer generated, as it must, because that is SL. Nevertheless, the film raises a number of questions for offline viewers, especially given the apparent freedom Cao found there. Is this a place where connected Chinese citizens can go to escape government censorship and surveillance? If so, why the hammer-and-sickle decorative motifs? Is a utopian ideologue inherently attracted to the presumptive perfectiveness of SL’s virtual world?

Given their genre elements, Haze and iMirror fit together rather easily, but the former is the far more challenging and inventive film. If you are a MoMA member you should drop in and see it when it screens, because love it or hate it, you will not see anything like it anytime soon. Highly recommended, Haze and Fog screens with iMirror next Thursday (2/26) and Friday (2/27) as part of this year’s Documentary Fortnight at MoMA.