Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chinese Realities: Yumen

That hardly took long.  An oil boomtown in the 1990’s, Yumen is now a deserted ghost town—literally so if you believe some of the stories told by stragglers.  Regardless, viewers certainly get a vivid sense of contemporary China’s “burn rate” in Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao & J.P. Sniadecki’s Yumen (trailer here), which has its North American premiere tomorrow during MoMA’s ongoing Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.

According to one disembodied voice-over, the abandoned hospital is and was haunted by the spirit of an infant.  She once saw it with some friends, one of whom still bears a scar from the encounter.  Another man also remembers the hospital, having frequently visited an ambiguously sickly woman there.  These remnants of Yumen’s glory days are like ghosts themselves, often filmed like ant-like specks shuffling through the surreal post-industrial landscape.

The directorial trio consistently plays games with the doc format, incorporating what sound like staged reminiscences and showing the seams in between their 16mm reel changes.  Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the reality of the northwest Gansu town.  It is impossible to recreate ruins of such scale on an indie budget.  It looks like Pripyat outside of Chernobyl, just without the background radiation (as far as we know).

For what it’s worth, the woman’s ghost story is kind of creepy.  Yet more to the point, the intertwining memories and images clearly illustrate the pain and dislocation resulting from the death of a community, even one not especially beloved by its residents, such as Yumen.

Yumen is an impressive looking film, but even at its sixty-five minute running time, it feels a smidge stretched.  Certain visuals start to repeat themselves and a late scene rather overindulges in globalist irony, as one of their POV figures strolls through a nearby open air market singing along to Springsteen’s “My Hometown.”  As a multi-millionaire and self-appointed spokesman of the proletariat, Springsteen might actually be the perfect voice for today’s China, but the sequence just feels too long and stagey.

If you want to get a good look at Yumen this film is probably your best option, because the government is not like to sponsor tours there anytime soon.  It is not for everyone, but it should fascinate those with a taste for more experimental documentaries in the spirit of Disorder and San Yuan Li.  Recommended for aesthetically adventurous China watchers, Yumen screens this Monday (5/20) at MoMA, presented in-person by Sniadecki, the former American expatriate filmmaker, whose previous credits include Chaiqian and Sognhua, two similarly naturalistic observations of Chinese daily life.