Gan Bi (China, 1989 - family name Bi), also a poet and a photographer,
debuted with the short black-and-white film Diamond Sutra (2012), aka
The Poet and Singer.
Kaili Blues (2015) feels like a meditation a` la Theodoros Angelopulos . The protagonist is a man with multiple missions: to rescue his nephew, to deliver mementos to the lover of his old female business partner, to find musicians who can still play traditional folk music, and perhaps to find someone who wants to listen to his story. His actions are frequently interrupted by poems, and are introduced by Buddha's "Diamond Sutra". The plot is cryptic and confused, to say the least, mixing the linear story of a journey to the protagonist's hometown with legends of wildmen, views of majestic natural landscapes, a quasi-documentary about the humble lifestyle of a rural village, slow train rides, dreams, and clocks (the recurring motif of the film). The camera wanders increasingly at will, eventually indulging in a 41-minute unbroken shot through the narrow streets of a mountain village, following characters up and down the stairs of a village, taking detours into a tailor's shop and a hairdresser shop, and even a boat ride. We are aware of the camera's existence because at one point the camera leaves the motorcycle that is driving around a hairpin, runs down a narrow staircase and catches up with the motorcycle one street down.
Diqiu Zuihou de Yewan/ Last Evenings on Earth/ Long Day's Journey into Night (2018) mixes the story of a melancholy man who is haunted by the memory of his lost love with the actual memories of what happened to them, and it ends with a dream that reassembles and reshuffles all the elements that have surfaced. The story set in the present is a rather uneventful search for a cynical woman who has been very good at dumping husbands and lovers. The flashbacks instead construct a semblance of a noir movie in which the protagonist met this femme fatale and risked his life only for her to desert him. The story is told in fragments and it is not always clear whether a fragment is happening in the present or in the past, and whether they are shown chronologically. The main confusing aspect of the plot is that we don't know whether Luo's memory works or not, and therefore we don't know whether we have to take what we see literally: two women are played by the same actress (Kaizhen/ Wan) and two more (Wildcat's mother and the madwoman) are played by another actress; but does it mean that they are the same person? As the film progresses, and the protagonist's motives become more clear, we are not even sure whether the protagonist is looking for his old love, for the mother who abandoned him as a child, for revenge (of the murdered friend) or for just a lost period of his past. Note that Luo keeps using his mom's picture to find his lover Wan, because they look very similar. He has been abandoned three times: by his best friend (murdered), by his mother (who left him when he was still a child), and by his lover. He is haunted by all three mysteries.
If the film recalls Andrei Tarkovsky for some of the dilapidated settings, David Lynch for the ambiguity and fragmentation of the storytelling, and Kar-wai Wong for the voiceover and melancholy mood, there is also some Proust in the search for the lost past and some Freud in the way he mixes his mother and his lover, and in the way his subconscious rebuilds his life's story in a mostly rational dream using doppelgangers as powerful symbols.
The last, nocturnal scene consists of one continuous 59-minute take, shot in 3D. This begins when he wears the 3D glasses in a movie theater: basically, he starts watching a movie of his own life... past, present and maybe even future. We are told the same story twice, first in the unreliable form of memory and the other in the even less reliable form of a dream.
On the other hand the combination of real investigation, faulty memories, and dreamed events, when they all viewed as a whole, may provide an accurate depiction of what happened. The protagonist remembers his lover in stages and in layers. By the end we don't know exactly what happened out in the real world, but we have plenty of clues to reconstruct what happened inside him.
In a nutshell, the story seems to be this. Luo returns to his home village after 12 years. He has to attend the funeral of his father but in reality he wants to find the girl, Wan, whom he loved back then. He met her after he started investigating the death of his best friend Wildcat. Trying to locate the killer, Zuo, he met his girlfriend Wan, who looked like his mother, and they fell in love. Zuo had killed someone to protect this girl using a gun borrowed from Wildcat's father and then killed Wildcat (maybe because Wildcat knew his secret). Luo and Wan wanted to run away, but Zuo caught them and tortured him. Luo escaped, Wan convinced Luo to kill Zuo, but then she disappeared. A picture of his mother found in a wallclock (the same picture that he once showed to Wan to prove how similar she looked to his mom) takes him to a woman who is in prison who sends him to a hotel: Wan did hide there and married the hotel owner, but they divorced and she left him (a fact that seems to imply a serial cheater who seduces and takes advantage of gullible men). She is now a singer and a prostitute in a karaoke bar. The bar is about to be torn down and that night they have the last show. Waiting for the show to begin in one hour, Luo walks into a movie theater and falls asleep. Then he has a 59-minute dream in which all these characters reappear in one form or another. Then at the last minute the camera stops in front of the door beyond which the perfomance is about to begin.
The narrating voiceover tells us that, after Wildcat died, he saw his ghost on a train. Luo suspected Zuo Hongyuan, a local thug, of the murder, who had vanished, and tried to find him. Luo found Zuo's girlfriend. She told Luo that she didn't know where Zuo was hiding. Luo followed her while she walked inside a tunnel. He told her that she looked like his mother and showed her the picture of his mother that was in the clock. She told him her name, Wan Qimen.
Back to the present, there's a phone number on the picture and a friend tells him that it used to be the number of a women's prison. He visits an inmate, Tai, and asks her whether she mailed the picture to his father's restaurant. She tells him that she got the picture from Wan and she tells him a story about Wan: that as teenagers they robbed a house and Wan only took a green book, a book of legends. It also contains spells to make a house spin and a spell to fly. Wan was later sold to a man (not clear whether as a prostitute or a wife), while she, the inmate, was arrested with the others. Wan gave her the picture and yes she, Tai, mailed it to the restaurant because it was taken in that restaurant, and she wrote the phone number of the prison in the back. Luo gifts the green book to Tai and leaves. He is already driving the van out of the town home when a cop chases him and gives him a handwritten note from the inmate telling him where Wan now lives, in a hotel disguised under the name Chen.
A friend helps him track down this Chen in a hotel.
A flashback shows us when Wan told him that she got pregnant, to which Luo replied that he could go and work in a casino, and that he wanted to teach the child to play ping-pong. But Wan replied that she already got an abortion because Zuo was coming back. Luo begged Wan to flee with him.
He is driving his van on an unpaved road and is stopped at a police checkpoint.
Another flashback shows when Zuo captured them, hanged him by his wrists and tortured him while singing karaoke, his gangsters witnessing the scene silently.
Luo walks into the hotel and asks about Chen. The owner of the hotel tells him that, when she moved in, she was mysterious. She locked herself in her room and never came out until she ran out of money. Then they got married. Then they got divorced and she disappeared. The hotel owner guesses that he is Luo (which means that Chen must have told him about Luo). The hotel owner says that he doesn't know if what she told him was true or false: she was too good at telling stories. He heard that she now performs in a karaoke show.
Another flashback shows when she asked Luo to kill Zuo: somehow Luo had escaped and she wanted him to ambush Zuo and kill him in a movie theater.
On the way to the karaoke bar, Luo visits a hairdresser who is dancing in front of the tv set. She is Wildcat's mother. It's the first time they meet since Wildcat died. Luo and Wildcat used to work for her. Luo tells her that a mudslide forced them to abort their mission. A flashback shows when the murdered Wildcat was dumped in a cart and pushed down into the mineshaft. She tells Luo that Zuo had borrowed the gun from Wildcat's father to kill the man who wanted to sell Wan (which is presumably the reason that Wan became Zuo's slave, and presumably this man is the same one mentioned by Tai). Luo tells us that, after presumably killing Zuo, when he returned to the house with the leaking ceiling, she was gone, leaving behind the green book. (Having just heard how she took advantage of the hotel owner, we suspect that she had taken advantage of Luo too, having him kill Zuo to free herself).
Following the directions of the hotel owner, Luo reaches a place where a karaoke bar and brothel is about to be torn down. That night the last performance will take place. This is his last chance to find Wan. The owner of the establishment tells him that the show will begin in one hour and advises him to watch a one-hour movie.
He sits in a movie theater, wears a pair of 3D glasses, falls asleep, and starts dreaming. Now (halfway into the film) the title card of the film finally appears, as if this is the title card of the film that Luo is watching, not of the film that we are watching.
His dream (a 59-minute unbroken take, long exactly one minute less than the hour that it takes to wait for Wan's karaoke performance) takes him into a tunnel that connects the movie theater with a mineshaft where he finds a child locked into a closet who claims to be a ghost and named Wildcat. Luo is lost in the maze and cannot find the exit. He burns the picture of his mother and meditates that he is missing the last chance that he had to find Wan. The child challenges him at a ping-pong game. Luo wins and the child accepts to escort him outside. The child takes him on a scooter to the exit and then tells him to board a chairlift that will take him back to the karaoke bar. Instead he lands in a tiny village where a small crowd is watching a karaoke show. He meets a singer who is playing the slot machine and is preparing to go on stage (played by the same actress who plays Wan Qiwen). Luo tells this woman that she looks like the woman he's looking for and she replies that her name is Khaizen. She manages a pool house. She wants to close and go home but t violence to convince them to get out, but the two kids, leaving the place, lock Luo and Khaizen inside. The woman tells him that her boyfriend abuses her and cheats on her. Luo spins the ping-pong paddle that the child gifted him and they fly over the square. She points the house where two lovers used to live. She takes him to the prison gate. Then she walks back to the main square where the crowd is watching the show. A madwoman shows up with a flaming torch, played by the same actress who played the hairdresser, Wildcat's mom. Luo is hiding behind a corner and starts following the madwoman. She walks to an iron gate that is locked. The man on the other side refuses to open because she has just burned down their house. She accuses him of being a liar. Luo joins them, points a gun at the man, forces him to open the gate, and to take the woman back. He talks to her as if she were his long-lost mother (who abandoned him as a child and burned down his father's house). He asks her the most valuable thing she has and she gives him a broken watch. He returns to the square and gives the watch to Khaizen who is about to go on stage. Nonetheless, she takes him to see the house of the lovers and is surprised to see that it was burned down (presumably by the madwoman). Khaizen tells him that he can kiss her if the house spins, and Luo uses another spell to make the house spinning. They kiss. The camera walks outside up the street to the door where she is about to perform. This sequence has lasted 59 minutes and Wan's karaoke show should start now.