While Hollywood seemingly woke up to Asian cinema with the W award of the Best Picture Oscar to Bong Joon-ho for Parasite last year, the Chinese film industry has long been turning out noteworthy filmmakers and directors, of which the most creative and interesting is arguably Bi Gan.
The 31-year-old poet-turned-director is rapidly becoming the name to drop in art house film conversations with an impressive body of work. He considers himself a self-taught auteur, and learned by watching movies by the likes of Stephen Chow, Andrei Tarkovsky and Hou Hsiao-hsien but has now defined a style very much of his own.
His debut Kaili Blues was a notable opening salvo for a first-time director.
The story sees a doctor travel to his hometown to rescue his nephew, confronting his traumatic past in the process. Stylistically it is remarkable. The film transitions from loosely connected scenes and straight takes about trains, memory and human connections to a point, midway through, where it starts an astonishing 40-minute-long tracking shot depicting the main character Chen’s journey up a mountain to find his missing nephew Wei Wei. Though his debut won him accolades and critical attention abroad, in China the film was only screened for a few days in cinemas. It did, however, give studios the confidence to back him, and while his debut saw a largely unprofessional cast culled locally from his home patch of Kaili, his follow-up used big-name actors. But Long Day’s Journey into Night was as controversial as it was visually arresting.
What starts as a dream noir story of a man returning home after a decade away to find his old love, switches into a plotless fantastical fairy tale that has been described as one of the best depictions of dreaming ever committed to film.
In a clever use of the medium, around the 75-minute mark the lead actor goes to a cinema to watch a 3D film and as he puts on the glasses Bi Gan’s film switches to 3D as well and the audience is required to put on the glasses they were given when they entered the cinema. The rest of the film is a 59-minute 3D dream sequence shot in a single take including a voiceover reciting the director’s own poetry, and abstract images covering memory, time, and space in a plotless conclusion that at one point sees the lead take flight. The director described it as a soft and tender fairy tale following on from a hardcore film.
There was a huge backlash from audiences who felt they were tricked by misleading promotion into watching an incomprehensible highbrow flick. As a result, on Maoyan – the Chinese equivalent of IMDB – it is averaging 2.8 out of 10 as many who went to see the film expected a straight romance and instead saw an art house film.
Bi responded that it had given a new group of people the opportunity to see something different. It eventually took $41 million, making it the highest-grossing, independent film in the country’s history – even if many persons went to see it thinking it was something else. The critics were more appreciative and it won three awards at the 55th Golden Horse Awards – the Chinese Oscars. It made him the enfant terrible of Chinese art house cinema, but when interviewed Bi Gan seems more pragmatic, shy and far removed from the persona you might expect from someone who makes such films. When asked why he chose to film in Kaili, he simply replied it was because he lived there and liked the food. He has claimed – perhaps in jest, perhaps not – that one of the main reasons he chose to make the film in 3D was that his lead actor was changing weight and he thought that this might be hidden better if it was filmed in 3D.
“My perspective is not the mainstream because I see myself as a person looking in from the outside and the margins,” he once remarked, which is as near as you’ll get to a quote from him that sums up his cinematic approach.
The line between auteur genius and overly pretentious often comes down to a question of personal taste, but with Bi Gan there’s an indisputable exciting willingness to make the medium more interesting. The use of 3D in Long Day’s Journey into Night as a way to mark the point in the story where it becomes fantastical, was a clever use of the tool, rather than just making films in 3D to encourage people to see them in cinemas and charge more as many Hollywood films have done in the last decade.
His works are considered to be neo-magic realism and critics have compared him to the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel and Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Like those auteurs, he creates films that can leave the casual multiplex cinema goer scratching their head, but creates images and cinematic experiences that transcend the norm. And right now in cinema, something different from the norm is something we should be celebrating.
Bi Gan creates films that can leave the casual multiplex cinema goer scratching their head
Shahrbanoo Sadat’s path into film making was so unlikely, and she beat such great odds, that it would be near unbelievable as source material for a film in its own right.
She was born as an Afghan refugee in Iran, spending her early years in Tehran, but in 2001 at the age of 11 her father moved the family away from the big city to relocate them in a small, isolated village in central Afghanistan.
“We were in the middle of nowhere and for me as an 11-year-old it was really hard,” she remarked. Here with no electricity, water, or phone signal let alone Internet, she was isolated from the world. As an outsider she didn’t even have the glasses she needed to see properly until she was 18 years old, but she did meet people who were storytellers, and would sit and listen as they told the tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. It was at the age of 18 that she went to Kabul to study and remarked, “In 2009 my life started, I was only really born in 2009.” It was here that Shahrbanoo saw her first film, started to read books and with her new glasses – both literally and metaphorically – see the world properly for the first time. Her introduction to filmmaking was actually a mistake. She’d wanted to study physics but sat the wrong entry exam for university and ended up on the cinema and theater course. It was a course she never finished but found a place in a French workshop called Ateliers Varan. There, Shahrbanoo studied the basics of documentary cinema with a special focus on cinéma vérité, and started to dream about making films.
Afghanistan is about more than war,” has become one of Shahrbanoo Sadat’s often-repeated phrases.
The path didn’t get any easier. Soon she learned that filmmaker is a rare job in Kabul and by no means respected. “As soon as you say you are a filmmaker, they assume you’re a prostitute,” she said, but was not deterred from following her passion. Her first short film Vice Versa One was made for $100 in 2009 with borrowed equipment, and that landed her a place within the Cannes Cinéfondation Residence.
With the help of the residence, in 2013 she opened her production company, Wolf Pictures, and began her first feature, Wolf and Sheep.
A blurring of documentary and fiction, it is a portrait of the shepherd children in Afghanistan, following lives from a community in a small village in the rural part of the country – just as she’d grown up in. With the traditions and stories of the area and the legend of the Kashmir Wolf, her film ended up at Cannes. Just 20 years old at the time, she was the youngest ever selected and the film won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 2016.
Now 31-years old, her driving goal is still the same as it was back then – to get people to see beyond clichés about her country. “Afghanistan is about more than war” has become one of her often-repeated phrases, and her films have been depicting a world in her country beyond what’s shown on the news. It’s born out of a belief that Afghanistan is rich with stories and a country full of good storytellers, partly because in Afghanistan so few people are writing down the words so there’s an oral tradition of passing on these narratives.
Her second film, The Orphanage, follows on from Wolf and Sheep and is the second in a planned pentalogy.
Based on the diary of writer Anwar Hashimi and set in late Soviet-era Afghanistan, this coming-of-age tale follows a 15-year-old boy who is sent to a state orphanage after getting caught selling black market cinema tickets. Here he finds an escape in Bollywood song-and-dance fantasies in a nostalgic portrayal of an era of late 1980s Afghan youth, before the Taliban took control of the country.
Shahrbanoo has cast over 2,000 Afghanis – often children – in her commitment to accurately portray Afghanistan on screen, and often her main character is not an actor but the community itself.
It would have been easy to make yet another film that shows the war, violence and repression that has plagued Afghanistan, but Shahrbanoo Sadat has chosen a harder path and opts to tell stories of hope. It’s apt, considering her own journey here has been a hard path, and one that now – through her films – can bring hope to others.
Crédits: Photo by Julien Lienard/Contour by Getty Images; Courtesy, Collection Christophel/China Film International Media Co; Photo by Aude de Cazenove/Contour by Getty Images; Courtesy, Collection Christophel/Adomeit film/La fabrica nocturna Productions