Just like the nightly dreamscapes we all spend a fourth of our lives wandering, my excursion through Kaili Blues was an astonishing puzzle. First time filmmaker Bi Gan had taken the language of my film heroes and remixed it with a flagrant disregard for cinematic perfection. It was brazen and carefree in the way that gives every filmmaker some hope. But it was also bewildering. Although the other two individuals I saw it with seemed to roll with it completely, I had no idea what the fuck was going on.
And yet emerging from this hallucinatory trip, I tried to hold onto the confusion because although I didn't completely know what I was watching, I felt it in my gut that I'd glimpsed the precipice, briefly. I held on because I had the feeling that this young man had done it, had done the thing filmmakers have been trying to do since the beginning of the form: he'd reached into the essence of cinema (TIME) and found something new.
So I watched it again.
On the second watch I realized that, yes, the film is demanding, yet only because we've been trained to expect narratives to move in a line. Bi Gan's film, on the other hand, moves in circles. Like the clocks that adorn the walls of this film, or the slow circular pans that inhabit its spaces, we return again and again to familiar scenarios, characters, details: brotherly rage, a dead love, a missing child, ominous wild men, and a memory of a place called Kaili.
And then [spoilers ahead]: an hour into the film there is a sequence that I believe most viewers will agree is its triumph -- what the film will most likely be remembered for after the first watch -- a tour de force, 40-minute sequence in real time with no cuts. It's an audacious feat in itself, one that filmmakers have deployed more and more as digital becomes the norm. But while most filmmakers wield the long take like a new set of biceps, Bi uses it to show someone getting a haircut, a slow ride down a river, a painfully awkward karaoke performance. If all of these elements sound disconnected it's because this long take isn't about the anxiety of real time, it's about the anxiety of unreal time. There aren't any cuts in dreams, either, man.
And thus the film continues, circling back onto itself, while doubles of characters appear and disappear, culminating in the realization (for our main character, but also for me, watching it) that even while time is moving forward, we know the things that have passed will come around again.
Ultimately, it's either all a dream or none of it is, and if this sounds both pretentious and banal it's because of course it is when written down in words like this. But I'm convinced that the future of cinema lies in this very banal statement. Kaili Blues is a reminder that the future is rooted in the past, in that very thing filmmakers have been exploring since its invention: time.