A Yangtze Landscape (Xu Xin, 2017)

Festivalscope is giving access, till mid April,  to some of the documentaries screened at this year edition of Cinéma du réel, one of the most prestigious festivals dedicated to non-fiction cinema. (You can learn more here)
I grabbed the chance and last night I watched A Yangtze Landscape, a movie directed, photographed and edited by Xu Xin. IMDB describes it as follows:

A Yangtze Landscape utilizes a non-narrative style, setting off from the Yangtze’s marine port Shanghai, filming all the way to the Yangtze River’s source, Qinghai/Tibet – filming a total distance of thousands of kilometers. Experimental music and noise recorded live on scene are used in post-production, painstakingly paired with relatively independent visuals, creating a magically realistic atmosphere contrasted with people seeming to be ‘decorative figures’ right out of traditional Chinese landscape scrolls.

The documentary is composed of stunning scenary rendered in beautiful digital black & white, particularly the night landscapes are of almost pictorial quality, punctuated by scenes of people inhabiting the areas along the river, mostly areas ruined or emptied by the industrial and urban changes of the last decades. These parts with people are, in my opinion, performative, in a sense that the people seen, most of them poors, with mental problems or homeless, are performing themselves and their daily routine in front and for the camera. A Yangtze Landscape is for this reason a very partial film that focuses its attention on certain edges of Chinese society, I’m pretty sure that most of the comunities living near or on the banks of the Yangtze river are very different from the few exceptional individuals shown in the movie. Yet this is not a demerit of the film, a certain quality of artificiality so to speak, or performance as I have called it above, is very obviously present from the first minutes of the documentary, and the fact that it’s shot in its entirety in black & white is after all the biggest hint of its poetic aspiration and quality. Also on a technical side, it is worth noticing how in more than 2 hours and half there’s never a camera movement and a zoom in or out, the frame never moves, everything is crystallized and done by a very crafted editing, we have the camera “moving” only in the scenes where it is positioned on a ship floating on the river.
The movie has some similarity in its basic concept and structure to P. J. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, if I’m not wrong, the american director is among the people thanked at the end of the documentary. There the camera followed the lives of Chinese people commuting by train from one part of the country to the other, from the lower to the upper class, here Xu Xin directs his gaze from the port of Shanghai to its source in Tibet.
We see and learn through intertitles, there’s no narration, about abandoned old villages, a bridge where every year many people commit suicide and other disasters and accidents that have happened near or on the river in the last 5 or 10 years.
The only witness of all these happenings seems to be the landscape, it is almost useless to say it, but the real protagonist of the movie is the landscape, a space where natural, human and industrial histories/stories intermingle and merge.

Interesting and well crafted as it is, I nonetheless feel that something is missing from it, to denounce and criticize certain aspects of contemporary Chinese society, and not only China, is something that absolutely must be done, but now that the country is in the spotlight internationally the risk is to look too redundant. For instance, towards the end of the movie there’s a long part all dedicated to a couple of homeless, their shacks and their dogs, we can see them on the foreground sitting in an old sofa or wandering among ruins with the ultramodern city and its skyscrapers on the background. The image is beautiful in its contrast, and even if it possesses a degree of truth, it ends up being trite and obvious, weakening the potential of the movie. While I like the general style, again the black & white is pictorial and the editing is perfect, it must be said that sometimes the film looks too “beautiful” and the image too “clean” without being subversive. The parts that resonate with me the most are those where Xu Xin explores the aesthetics of documentary to its limits. The aforementioned night scenes of the cities lights along the river, shiny but empty jewel boxes, or those at the river locks, slow and almost endless images of the water level, the ships raising and the gates opening, paired with a cacophonous soundscape made of squeaking noises and experimental music.