Out of Time: Chinese Films Mingle Past and Present

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This week, the Sackler begins its "Video Art from Asia" series with two short films by Chinese makers: Yang Fudong’s "Liu Lan" and Cao Fei and Ou Ning’s "San Yuan Li." Both films were made in 2003.

"Liu Lan" is a rustic love story. At the start, a man in an all-white suit meets his girlfriend by the river. Nothing too hot or heavy on this date: the couple share a meal of fish aboard her boat. Then he sits respectfully at her side while she embroiders a piece of lace. It all goes down in black and white, and birds croon in the (imagined) distance. The lovers don’t even talk. As the film ends and the boy steps back on shore, a female singer asks "why are people in love always apart?" On the heels of Fudong’s lovely display, the question leaps out as both physical and metaphysical. How can one unpack the symbolism of the shore, the boat, the swaying reeds, the boy’s fancy suit and the girl’s old-fashioned veil? Perhaps it’s better to leave the film as it is, a stolen moment between a city boy and the girl who reminds him of home.

Meanwhile next door, there’s a whole different show going on. The museum's other offering, filmed to beat-heavy, fast music is "San Yuan Li," a video portrait of a town set on the doorstep of upheaval (click for a Youtube preview). The town of San Yuan Li became famous when its residents took up arms against British expeditionary forces in 1841. Now, the village is a relic of the past, existing under the shadow of China’s fast-developing Gangzhou province. The filmmakers play with speed, showing a montage of Gangzhou residents’ morning calisthenics in humorous fast-forward. But they slow down on group shots of San Yuan Li-ites as they laugh, make food and talk on the phone. Whether San Yuan Li will get buoyed up or destroyed by the modernization sweeping the neighboring lands remains a big question at the end.

In a sense, both these films show the rough in-between places where the old and the new rub up against each other. The theme makes sense for China, which has undergone shocking change in just the past decade.

The curators put the films in dark rooms next to each other, setting up a contrast area in advance, a gray zone where the two films’ sound and ethos come together. It’s strange to sit in "Liu Lan," spellbound by the lovers’ silent drama, while the sound of car horns intrudes from next door. But that’s the point, isn't it?

Still from "Liu Lan" courtesy of Yang Fudong and the Sackler Gallery of Art. Films on view until November 30, 2008, as part of "Moving Perspectives: Video Art from Asia."

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