The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is apparently bent on domination of the documentary world, or at least its cutting edge. While Lucien Castaing-Taylor has taken the film world by storm with his Sweetgrass and now Leviathan (co-directed with Verena Paravel), films about sheep-herding and fishing, respectively, that have become minor hits of the art house avant-garde, JP Sniadecki has been working in China, producing a number of films including last VIFF’s People’s Park (co-directed with Libbie Cohn) and now Yumen (co-directed with Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang). The HSEL also produced Manakamana, which has also received rave reviews this year. All of these films are notable for their use of sound, and Sniadecki in particular seems interested in the clashing of sounds, in the discordances between sound and image that can create unexpected meanings.
In People’s Park, this manifested itself in a kind of filmed version of early 20th century American composer Charles Ives’s experiments, best heard in “Central Park in the Dark”, where a three-dimensional soundscape is created, the sounds one would hear when walking around an ordinary park, picking up all the weird clashes of music and chatter and laughter that form everyday public spaces (in the film this is accomplished in one single roving take through the park). Ives’s father, a quirky local band leader, used to march two separate bands in opposite directions around a square, listening for the discordances and unexpected harmonies as their different tunes slowly came together and broke apart. Ives’s work is full of such clashes, with bits of popular or folk tunes blended into a larger, more classically-structured whole. Not that the integration of folk tunes into classical composition neither began or ended with Charles Ives, but Ives seems more interested in rupturing or fracturing the whole than someone like Brahms was in incorporating Eastern European folk melodies into catchy Hungarian Dances, to take one example.
Yumen is a similarly fractured whole, not just in soundtrack, but in narrative as well. Lying somewhere between documentary and fiction, it follows a handful of people as they wander around the ruins of a mid-20th century industrial area, a hospital, and some apartment buildings near an abandoned oil field. Shot in a scratchy 16mm that occasionally burns out in flashes of color, the narrative builds from the ground up as we slowly piece together who the characters are via their bizarre actions (painting faces on walls, standing naked on pillars, dancing) and the narration which appears to be townspeople recalling the stories and history of the town, either from their personal experience or local legend. Mixed in as well seemingly at random (but of course not) are snippets of popular music or sound from TV programs. Yumen is located in the same Gansu province, in Western China, that is the subject of Chai Chunya’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, and like that film it depicts the area as a cultural crossroads, a wholly unique mixture of ancient and modern, of Chinese and outside influences. But where Chai’s film is suffused with the mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism and the mystical Sufi strain of Islam, along with other more primal legends and imagery, Yumen mystifies recent history, making the industrial world as magically ghost-ridden and full of possibility as the pre-modern past.
It’s an unfortunate irony that movies like this, so dense and challenging to take in and unpack at times, can largely only be seen in film festivals, smashed together against so many other films (four a day for a week, or more) that without careful notes, or a superhuman ability to write coherently quickly, details can easily be lost or forgotten. But on the other hand, sometimes those clashes produce serendipitous comparisons (another film at VIFF 2013 this reminds me of is Yang Zhengfan’s Distant, a long-take film that sources sound in unexpected, and very different ways). As the festival recedes into my past, certain things, movies or simply moments within movies, tend to separate in my memory and stand in stark relief from the general wash, moments that take root and plant themselves in my consciousness. I don’t know if this is necessarily a marker of greatness in a film, but it seems like it should be.
The highlight of Yumen, and one of my favorite moments of the festival, comes near the end, when one of the girls who had been wandering the ruins takes a walk through the market of the village that remains behind in the wake of the vanished industrial boom. It’s a single long take, tracking backwards as she moves towards the camera. She’s listening to an iPod and singing along quietly to the song, Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown”.