Thursday, November 09, 2017

Taiwanese Film Biennial ’17: Realm of Reverberations

It sounds like the premise of a horror movie, but it really happened. Due to shifting fault lines and water contamination caused by ill-conceived construction projects, locals genuinely believed the land Losheng Sanatorium was built over really was cursed. Intended as a place to shut away patients suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy), Losheng was not a particularly progressive undertaking, even by the standards of the Japanese imperialists. Yet, decades later, residents protested plans to close the facility, because they had no place else to go. Losheng and the ironically similar looking Taipei Prison provide the settings for Chen Chieh-jen’s Realm of Reverberations (trailer here), an essayistic docu-art installation hybrid, which screens as part of What Time Is It There? Taiwanese Film Biennial at the UCLA Film & Television archive.

Chen frequently explores the (often oppressive) impact architecture has on the ant-like humans who navigate the demarcated spaces, but in the cases of Losheng and Taipei Prison, you could say he is shooting fish in a barrel. Nonetheless, Losheng and its displaced residents have become a cause célèbre for Taiwan’s activist class. Franky, the underlying land sounds uniquely ill-suited for a transit hub and the high-handed manner in which local authorities made decisions understandably rubbed many the wrong way.

Chen’s starkly dignified close-ups of the wheelchair-bound residents make a powerful statement, but they lose their potency due to repetition. Likewise, the circumstances of the hospice nurse’s life are certainly dramatic. She survived the Cultural Revolution while young girl on the Mainland, eventually coming to Taiwan to marry her future ex-husband. Eventually, she was forced to retire from Losheng, because it was too painful watching her patients die. Yet, watching her do penance by cleaning up the decaying Losheng premises is maybe not the most profitable use of her presence and it gives short shrift to her deeply compelling story. Similarly, the guilt-ridden niece who constantly returns to visit the spirit of her Uncle Yang and the fictional time-traveling political prisoner function more as symbols (or even props) than characters or subjects.

Nevertheless, Chen’s black-and-white visuals are absolutely arresting. He and cinematographer Chien Ming-chi just hold them for exquisitely hushed, maddeningly static long takes. In all honesty, it is probably much easier to relate to Realm as the installation piece it was intended to be, rather than as a work of beginning, middle, and end cinema to be properly screened. Instead, it is probably best to walk under its large projections screens, remark how it sure is something, and then continue through the museum or gallery. Lovely to take in, in a tragically scarred kind of way, but not really recommended as a film for theaters, Realm of Reverberations screens this Saturday (11/11) at the UCLA Film & TV Archive.