Bi Gan: 'Shooting weddings is like jazz music'

The young director on his acclaimed first feature film

Last year, Bi Gan’s film Kaili Blues seemed to hit the international festival circuit from out of nowhere, becoming the most critically buzzed-about Mainland film since Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin. Even more remarkable than the awards it picked up at the Locarno and Golden Horse film festivals is the fact that Kaili Blues is the 26-year-old director’s first feature film. It’s hard to remember the last time a new Mainland filmmaker inspired such fervent international critical admiration. Film Comment raved about the movie’s ‘dazzling originality’, while in art film-crazy France, reviews ranged from ‘magnifique’ (Libération) to ‘merveilleux’ (Le Monde).

So what has all the sudden international acclaim done for this young director? Has the attention brought him fame and fortune? ‘Before, my problems were like the size of a house,’ Bi tells us, ‘but now they’re the size of a small planet. There’s still not a lot of money.’

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Bi Gan (second from left) on set.

Thus is the life of an art film director in China. Bi’s no second-generation rich kid from a first-tier city, either. Kaili Blues is named after his hometown of Kaili, in the impoverished southwestern province of Guizhou. His father is a driver; his mother ran a hair salon.

While the titular city and its surroundings obviously play a major role in the film, so do Bi’s own past and family. The cast is largely made up of local villagers, including Bi’s family members. The main character of the film is haunted in his dreams by a pair of his mother’s embroidered shoes, and much of the character’s actions are driven by obligations to his family, including his brother and nephew.

In basic terms, the film’s plot follows Chen, a bereaved small town doctor and ex-con, as he goes on a voyage to find his nephew and deliver some items for a co-worker. The reality of watching the film isn’t so straightforward, however, with an interwoven structure that seems to make time fold in on itself. It’s a structure that echoes a Buddhist sutra referenced in the film: ‘The past mind cannot be attained, the present mind cannot be attained, the future mind cannot be attained.’

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‘For me, those three statements represent a way of looking at time,’ explains Bi. ‘I’m interested in time and memory, I don’t know why. It’s not just me, though. Scientists, philosophers, physicists, they’re all interested in time and memory.’

This is an effect that may initially strike the viewer as confounding, but it builds to a larger whole. ‘I’d say it’s like reading a Song Dynasty poem that has long and short portions,’ says Bi. ‘The imagery is established and the information dispersed in different parts, but when you read it as a whole, it all comes together.’

The comparison to poetry is no accident. In addition to being a filmmaker, Bi is a published poet. Both Kaili Blues and the short films that preceded it are laced with Bi’s own poetry, some of which the protagonist of Kaili Blues reads aloud in the film.

Other poets serve as a big influence on the film, while its sense of magical realism is influenced by Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novel, Pedro Páramo. ‘I don’t read many books, but I really like Pedro,’ says Bi.

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Kaili Blues has also drawn comparisons to other Asian arthouse faves like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. ‘Hou Hsiao-Hsien was definitely a big influence, and the spirit of Apichatpong Weerasethakul was too,’ says Bi. ‘The way my film handles visuals and audio is very different from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but I liked his Tropical Malady. There aren’t many directors I like: Tarkovsky, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Stephen Chow.’

A lowbrow Hong Kong slapstick comedy director like Stephen Chow might not seem to fit in with the rest of Bi’s highbrow influences, but older Hong Kong movies were another influence on Kaili Blues: ‘When I was a kid in Guizhou, most of the visual culture we got was from Hong Kong movies, so it’s probably Hong Kong films that inspired the use of murder and fear [in the movie].’

Kaili-Blues

The elliptical, dreamlike style of Kaili Blues may show the influence of deliberative Taiwanese directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang, but it also stands out for its own unique strengths. Chief among these is a jaw-dropping long shot that weaves through multiple roads and shortcuts, following its characters through the countryside and into a village as they travel on multiple vehicles. The shot lasts a full 40 minutes.

‘After finding the right location [for the long shot], the first thing I did was change the script. Then we rehearsed that part for about half a month. Everything was hard: money, human effort, the weather, equipment.’ Bi drew experience for the difficult endeavour from an unexpected source: his past work as a wedding photographer. ‘Shooting weddings was kind of improvisatory, like jazz music, and that helped lead to the long shot in Kaili Blues.’

Given the rapturous festival reception his debut feature has received, Bi probably doesn’t have to worry about going back to shooting weddings anymore. Even so, his plans remain grounded: ‘I still plan to make movies in Kaili... I don’t know other places well enough.’

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