Friday, October 06, 2017

NYFF ’17: Dragonfly Eyes

Given the proliferation of security cameras, Mainland Chinese increasingly live in public. However, it is hard for them to object when they willing trade away so much privacy through web-cams and social media. Installation artist Xu Bing tells a modern fable exclusively through cobbled-together excerpts of CCTV footage and cloud-stored internet video in Dragonfly Eyes (trailer here), which screens as a Projections selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

Ting Qing (“Dragonfly”) has lived a sheltered existence in a Buddhist monastery, but she is restless to see some of big city life. Will she ever. Repeatedly told she is plain, the unskilled young woman accepts a series of menial jobs. At a large dairy farm, she turns the head of a Ke Fan, a skilled worker with anger management issues. He will follow her from city to city and job to job, lashing out whenever he feels she has been mistreated.

Eventually, this lands Ke Fan in prison and Ting Qing in need of another fresh start. She gets a crack at it, thanks to plastic surgery, obtained through her before-and-after modeling. Suddenly, she finds creepy fame as an internet idol. Unfortunately, the masses are fickle and the trolls will be cruel.

Frankly, Dragonfly makes you wonder why the Chinese government bothered to install so many cameras, when nobody makes an effort to stop the various beatings and drownings they captured. If they aren’t being watched, then what is the point?

In fact, some of the edited footage is highly disturbing, almost in a Faces of Death kind of way. While some of the most disastrous clips are used as metaphorical interstitial buffers, they register just the same. For instance, Xu incorporates car accidents, suicides, roof cave-ins, bridge collapses, train derailments, and an airliner falling out of the sky. China never looked more dangerous than it does in Dragonfly, because it is all real.

Zhai Yongming and Zhang Hanyi’s screenplay definitely leans towards the melodramatic, but it takes a gender-bending left turn late in the third act that is definitely gutsy for the Mainland. Their story might be sudsy, there is something oddly compelling about Ting Qing and Ke Fan, two young people trying to make it in the city, but finding the deck stacked against them. The disembodied voices of Liu Yongfang and Su Shangqing that narrate the grainy footage are weirdly compelling in a similar way.

Yet, considering how it was assembled, it is rather surprising Dragonfly is more of an indictment of the corrosive madness of social media than the invasiveness of the surveillance state. Either way, the film clearly suggests a bit more privacy would be a good thing.

China could very well be the most connected and tech-savvy country in the world, but it is also one of the most socially and economically stratified. Xu and his team throw that dichotomy into sharp relief. They also give viewers a feel for everyday life in China, albeit often in times of sudden stress. Watching some of the particularly violent and tragic scenes will make viewers feel like intrusive voyeurs, but at least Xu employs (or exploits) them to make a progressive point. Recommended with minor reservations for patrons of experimental cinema, Dragonfly Eyes screens this Sunday (10/8) and twice on Monday (10/9), as part of this year’s NYFF.