Thursday, April 07, 2016

Art of the Real ’16: Poet on a Business Trip

In addition to being the great American modernist poet, Wallace Stevens was also vice-president of The Hartford insurance company. He would have surely been familiar with expense reports and per diems. “Shu” is a much shaggier kind of poet. Not a lot of business will get done on his trip through Xinjiang, but it will result in sixteen poems. Ju Anqi followed the poet-“actor” through the Uyghur Autonomous Region for forty days, eventually culling his footage into the strange travelogue-hybrid-documentary Poet on a Business Trip (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Art of the Real.

Some of Shu’s verse evokes a sense of mystery, whereas some of it has the ring of hipster pretention. Nobody bats a thousand. One thing is clear, he is much more a Chinese Charles Bukowski than a Wallace Stevens. We will often see him drink and hire the services of prostitutes. He will even show the Full Monty, several times.

Trip was filmed in 2002, but its completion was temporarily derailed by a falling out between director and subject. Fourteen years later, minority Uyghur separatists have made Xinjiang a much tenser and fractious place. Frankly, at the time, it would have been relatively encouraging to see Shu’s debauchery could be so readily accepted and catered to in the Muslim dominated provincial towns.

In fact, several of the film’s most revealing scenes capture Shu’s conversations with prostitutes. Much of what they have to say about the economic opportunities and social standing of single women over thirty remains timely today. Unfortunately, there is an excessive surfeit of scenes of Shu sitting on buses and jitneys, distractedly staring out the window. Viewers will likely wish there was more of his conversations with his hired women, as well as the six or seven-year-old girl whose youngest infant sibling had recently passed away.

There is a bit of armchair sight-seeing to be done in Trip, but more meaningful interaction with the locals (regardless of profession) would have considerably enriched the pseudo-experimental travelogue. Retracing Shu’s steps could well be a much more complicated proposition in the current socio-political climate, especially with a movie camera in tow. It is too bad they did not more fully capitalize when they had the chance, but at least something finally came of it. Interesting at times but hardly essential, Poet on a Business Trip screens this Saturday (4/9) at the Beale, as a selection of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2016 Art of the Real.