Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mad Pigs and Chinamen

(Image: dGenerate Films)

If you had access to many hours of footage shot on the streets of any major city, you could cull from it quite an assortment of weirdos, scuzzbags and bizarre or disturbing incidents.  I doubt, however, that my own lovely berg of NYC would, in any given year, be likely to yield the image of dozens of escaped pigs galloping and strolling around on a highway and disrupting traffic.

That's just one of the many indelible scenes in Huang Weikai's Disorder (2009).  This astonishing experimental documentary/collage piece is the only one of the features I managed to see in the Museum of the Moving Image's recent, all-too-brief series "Tales from the New Chinese Cinema," focused on the wave of independent filmmakers emerging in the People's Republic.  Huang's 58-minute work is distilled from something like 1,000 hours of journalistic and amateur video footage shot in Guangzhou, the southern city that's one of the ground zeros for China's volcanic economic and social upheaval.

If that sounds dry and academic, be assured that the screening was accompanied by almost as much audience gasping as you'd expect in a decent horror movie, and more than a few bone-dry chuckles as well.  Disorder is the unruly, chained-in-the-attic relative of classic "city symphony" collage films like The Man with a Movie Camera or Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.  In her introduction, film scholar and series co-curator Cheng Sim-lim said that the original Chinese title translates roughly as The Present is the Future of the Past, which she interpreted as referring to the way in which the strange or even unthinkable becomes "the new normal" in a rapidly changing world.  No doubt even Chinese viewers would feel like much of the movie comes from another planet, and not one you'd necessarily want to visit (funny enough, I've been considering a side-trip to Guangzhou when I visit Hong Kong this coming fall).

Huang cuts rapidly back and forth among a number of continuing threads.  A man claiming to have been struck by a car lies moaning in the street as the driver and a gathering crowd accuse him of faking in order to extort money.  An archaeologist argues bitterly with a construction crew who have unearthed an historical artifact.  Police comb through an abandoned warehouse of smuggled animals and animal parts (leading to, I'm sure, the only use in cinema to date of the sentence, "The place is full of anteaters and bear paws.")  Passersby find an abandoned baby in a weed-and-trash-strewn vacant lot ("Are those bug bites on its face?").  A man swims and catches fish with a net in the foul, flotsam-strewn water beneath a bridge.  A shirtless, barefooted man stands in the middle of a rumbling highway, vacant-faced as he performs arcane, tai chi-like movements inches from rushing cars.  Amidst these and plenty of other "subplots," we occasionally see a blimp with the MetLife insurance company logo on the side hovering over the city like a watchful but indifferent god.  
(Image: dGenerate Films and Hydra magazine)

Huang doesn't impose commentary or drama or, well, order via music or any guiding narration.  But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of art here.  The different source videos are given an aesthetic unity by conversion into harsh, grainy black and white, in which form they occasionally present unlikely moments of gritty beauty.  The crafty editing (along with the lack of beginnings or endings inherent to much caught-on-the-fly footage) creates a species of narrative suspense.  The director/editor/compiler thankfully has a light touch with irony-generating juxtapositions, but they're there; embarrassingly, I actually missed one of the big ones until someone else's review pointed it out to me: the cut from squealing pigs being loaded onto trucks, to a scene of police forcing a fighting-mad old woman and her defenders into a paddy wagon as a crowd of onlookers grows increasingly angry and defiant.

That last scene is the most striking example of Disorder's ambivalent presentation of the authorities (granted, it's in the nature of the piece that almost everything in it is presented ambivalently to some extent).  Police, naturally enough, show up frequently, but they rarely seem to have much effect - indifference, bewilderment, exhaustion and stupidity bedevil them at least as much as they do ordinary citizens.  The near-riot around the police van, coming at the end of the film, feels like an explosion of pent-up frustration, rage and terror from cops and civilians alike - the dam finally bursting.

Clearly, the project as a whole is meant as a portrait of a society spinning out of control, growing and transmogrifying so fast it's buckling at the joins and threatening to fall apart (I can't imagine this is going to get much, if any, play in its own country).  Whether or not it's a true portrait is up to whomever you ask, probably.  Though it doesn't feel like it, in many ways, Disorder is as manipulated as any scripted drama - for all I know, someone else's selections from the 1,000 hours of footage might make a decent tourist board promo.  Keeping that in mind, I was occasionally nagged by the feeling of watching a voyeuristic freak show - if it hasn't happened already, I expect some critic will lash back against the movie on these grounds (no doubt employing the word "exoticized" at some point).  

So if you get a chance to see it, and I hope many more people do, don't go for an "unvarnished true portrait of today's China," or whatever.  Do go for the power of cinema, at its deceptively simplest, to blast through your eyeballs and hit your brain like a falling star slamming into the earth.

[Here's the YouTube channel for Disorder's U.S. distributor, dGenerate Films, with an interesting clip about their work with Chinese independent and underground filmmakers.]

[Chris Chang's vivid mini-review in Film Comment, without which I might not have elected to see the movie.]
(Image: dGenerate Films and Film Comment)

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