In the early 20th century, a number of intrepid researchers delved deep into rural America, looking to record the last vestiges of our-preindustrial past — folk songs, Scotch-Irish ballads, itinerant blues musicians, backwoods gospel preachers and singers. One collection of these recordings, compiled by Harry Smith and released in 1952, The Anthology of American Folk Music, served as a key inspiration for much of the popular music that dominated the latter half of the century: country and western, rhythm and blues, rock and roll. Its 84 tracks form an essential record of what Griel Marcus dubbed “The Old, Weird America” in his definitive study of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, a series of samizdat recordings designed explicitly to evoke that lost world, a project Dylan has returned to again and again throughout his career, most notably in his early 90s folk albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and in his late masterpiece "Love and Theft". The recordings are old, passed from generation to generation, and literate or not, they carry their history with them. The recordings are weird: a volatile clash of cultures, the sound of the pot melting as cultural traditions from Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean work to forge the unruly mess that is America.
Chai Chunya’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown might just as well be called “The Old, Weird China.” Set as the title says in his hometown, located in the Gansu province, a borderland between Han China, Tibet, and Muslim Central Asia, its stories and rituals are an amalgam of these disparate cultural and religious influences. The plot of the film is both allegorically mystical and semi-documentary in approach: the “four ways” of the title, four deaths, provide the spine for the stories of his fellow townspeople. Mostly centered on two young girls whose father is in hiding (in a coffin in a locked room for seven years) because humans are evil. The older girl explores the nearby river and has an affinity for animals (she sets a chicken free, floats with baby birds, and plays with the family camel). The younger encounters a madman who lives in a cave and preaches about the beginning of the world (in darkness — the people need light) and later hangs around with a woman who, since an accident at a young age, can see dead people.
Less an attempt at making a kind of logical or even symbolic sense, the film is instead an evocation of the particular myths and mysteries of a specific geography, one that is rapidly disappearing as China modernizes and the children move away, into the far away, globally-connected metropolises. Some of the most memorable characters in the film are three aged shadow puppeteers, men who learned their trade out of necessity (always economic rather than artistic, as they tell it) in the middle of the most radically disruptive century in China’s multi-millennial history. They haven’t performed in years, but they put on a show for the film (one of a few performances in the movie, each of which is interrupted: a Chinese opera, kids dancing before a bonfire (while wearing modern sunglasses)). It’s magical, but there’s no audience. The last shot we see of their world is their carefully prepared screen, engulfed in flames.
The film opens with a song, a young man sitting by the riverside, playing his acoustic guitar and singing a catchy tune, a modern one obviously influenced by American music. Each chapter, each death, ends with a recurring rhythmic tune, a kind of chanting, driving hum, meant, as Chai said in the post-screening Q & A at the Vancouver Film Festival, to give a sense of continuity, a sense that someone or some force is watching over these people. Of course it would be musical.