Chinese Portrait (2018) — June 12, 2019
The highest profile director in the 2019 Austin Asian American Film Festival is probably Wang Xiaoshuai, a key figure of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, but nonetheless one whom I only know from his cameo in Jia Zhangke’s The World. The AAAFF has his Chinese Portrait, an experimental documentary that consists of nothing but dozens of single shots of people (mostly) in China. The shots last for only a few minutes each, and mostly are of people in their work environments. Usually they have a person or two staring directly at the camera not moving, while other things move in other parts of the frame (the wind, other people, molten steel, sheep). But some of the shots have no people at all, but are instead of the land, the water, the sky, or buildings in various states of newness or collapse. Some shots are of individuals, some of large groups. Some have the feel of a slice of life, as of a bustling open-air café at night, made unnerving by the fact that two of the patrons are staring directly at us while normal life goes on all around them.
The name of the film and the compositions strongly recall still photography. We are accustomed, in such pictures, to people looking directly at us without moving. But it’s uncanny in a motion picture and the incongruity, the stillness within a moving frame, is not entirely unpleasant. It reminds us that these images, while appearing to show us a real China, are themselves constructs. By mixing one art form (still portraiture) with another (cinema), Wang gives us something that isn’t exactly either. Taken individually, any one of these portraits could be an interstitial scene from a narrative film, a pillow shot or an establishing shot, in an otherwise wholly constructed narrative. But of course, they still are that, we just can’t know what narrative these images are sliced away from. Taken as a whole, it might present an image of China itself, in all its individual contradictions and rhymes (urban and rural, digital and industrial, old and young, etc). Or it might just be China staring back at us, wondering why we’re so reliant on such dichotomies to make sense of their/our world.