Saturday, January 12, 2019

First Look ’19: Turtle Rock

There are ten families with four surnames who have lived for generations in this tiny mountainous village. None of them talk very much—probably because they are out of practice. It is a hard life, but native-born filmmaker Xiao Xiao cannot help feel nostalgic for it when he documents the daily toils of his grandmother and their fellow villagers in Turtle Rock (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

Turtle Rock village was named for a distinctly shaped rock formation. It is indeed picturesque, at least for outsiders. Villagers still work the land as best they can, but they are experiencing diminishing returns. Granted, this is the last site readers should go to for geologic analysis, but it looks pretty obvious Turtle Rock has some severe soil erosion problems.

Yet, despite the scarred landscape and hardscrabble homes, Turtle Rock is absolutely arresting in visual terms. Xiao Xiao (serving as his own cinematographer, editor, and sound guy) frames some stunning images, in stark black-and-white. The way he marries them with the natural, ambient sounds truly makes Turtle Rock an immersive film. He really puts you there in that distant corner of Hunan.

However, there is not a lot of drama going on in this documentary, just a lot of work and chores (quite a bit of which seems to involve pipes). Frankly, Xiao Xiao and “co-director”-producer Lin Lin will likely challenge many viewers’ conception of cinema. Just one look will make you respect his work, but it can be tiring. At one point, Xiao Xiao follows a villager silently trudging up a hill carrying a heavy bag of rice on his shoulders. It is an image that perfectly represents Turtle Rock’s subject matter and viewing experience.

Clearly, Turtle Rock is exactly the sort of village that has been overlooked by the Party and the PRC government, but the film itself almost entirely avoids addressing politics. Yet, there is one telling moment when villagers notice a broadside posted by the district Party enforcer, denouncing 16 unfortunates from neighboring villages, who had been “discredited.” Going to the trouble of shaming them in Turtle Rock seems like serious overkill.

Xiao Xiao’s talent is conspicuously evident, but if he maintains the strict aesthetic approach of Turtle Rock, he will remain a filmmaker for festival audiences. Watching his film is the closest thing to most of us will ever get to visiting Turtle Rock, even if the village continues to persist in its current state, suspended outside of time. Recommended for patrons of tactile, observational documentaries, Turtle Rock screens tomorrow (1/13), as part of First Look at MoMI.