Even today, families remain the essential building block of Chinese social organization, especially when it comes to retirement and economic safety nets. Yet, the Communist Party has a long history of pushing policies to weaken family unity. Lei Lei explores his family’s history of trauma during the Cultural Revolution through a series of interviews with his mother in the experimental documentary, Breathless Animals, which screens during this year’s Art of the Real.
Breathless is an exercise in found art, crafted out of photographs, magazines, and cast-off footage Lei Lei has collected. Yet, it is also a work of oral history, wherein his mother chronicles her family’s painful milestones from the period of Cultural Revolution until the 1980s thaw, as well as her own concurrent personal experiences. Although her memories are often presented in a fragmentary and elliptical manner, viewers will clearly come to understand how the tribulations her parents endured caused tremendous emotional anxiety for her (that frequently manifested in her dreams of ominous animals).
There is no doubt her testimony is the most crucial element of Breathless. Lei Lei also assembles some striking images, which he sometimes partially animates in clever ways. However, his aesthetic austerity does not always work hand-in-glove with the story-telling aspect of the film (but obviously that earned it an invite to Art of the Real).
In many ways, Breathless represents the fractured and mysterious nature of memory, but both family and national history would probably be better served by a smoother and more accessible account of their Cultural History years—even if it is as straight forward as Wang Bing’s static steady-shot talking-head interview documentary, Fengming: A Memoir. After all, the Party remains in denial, determined to pretend the Cultural Revolution (as well as the Great Leap Forward) never happened.
Lei Lei has skills and his mother has important testimony to recount, but they combine rather awkwardly here. Of course, both aspects pretty much guarantee the film will never see the inside of a Mainland movie theater, both separately and most definitely when taken together, which makes it worth seeing just on principle. Indeed, this is absolutely a case where the act of remembering is significant. Recommended for experienced patrons of experimental cinema, Breathless Animals screens tomorrow (4/27) as part of Art of the Real ’17.