The China Onscreen Biennial is a relatively new program which brings the latest in Chinese film to multiple cities in the US. The stated mission of the series is to encourage “cross-cultural dialogue through the art of the moving image” — a relevant concern given current strained relations between the US and China. This year, the fourth iteration of the event, has a particularly strong lineup, bringing in a number of films that have dominated the international festival circuit.
These are works like the Lady Bird-like, female-focused comedy Girls Always Happy or the wildly buzzed-about neo-noir Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which features an hour-long one-take shot in 3D. Acclaimed director Jia Zhangke is this year’s artist in residence, and the biennial is presenting a miniature retrospective of his movies, most of which have never widely screened in the US. The retrospective includes his newest film, Ash is Purest White, his personal spin on the crime thriller. Other movies in the series run the gamut from martial arts action like Paradox to family dramas like Baby.
Two selections in the biennial stand out, though — not just for their subject matter or prestige, but for their sheer breadth. Berlin Film Festival FIPRESCI winner An Elephant Standing Still runs nearly four hours, while the documentary Dead Souls clocks in at eight and a half. This is the kind of time- and attention-intensive experience that’s almost antithetical to the modern age of streaming entertainment, in which much of our movies and TV shows play in the background while we do other stuff. Despite this (or because of it), there’s an undeniable power in works that purposefully incorporate long duration into their creation. If you can brave the daunting runtimes (and keep in mind that Dead Souls screens with intermissions), then you’ll be well rewarded.
An Elephant Standing Still is the debut feature from director Hu Bo, who rapidly made a name for himself in China with his novels and short films, but tragically died by suicide one year ago. As a result, this stands as his sole feature, and thus carries metatextual weight it wasn’t intended to have, acting as something of a single cinematic statement from the auteur. Based on Hu’s own short story, the film uses its extended running time to explore in deep detail the lives of four people struggling on the margins in their go-nowhere town. Hearing rumors of an elephant at a zoo that ignores everything around it no matter what the provocation, the characters set out to see it for themselves. Taking place over one day, the film invokes its epic runtime to give weight to even the smallest interactions within its milieu.
Dead Souls is the new film from master documentarian Wang Bing, an epic made over the course of more than a decade. From over 100 interviews totaling more than 600 hours of footage, he’s put together an oral history of people who were imprisoned in desert reeducation camps during China’s Anti-Rightist Campaign in the late 1950s. This isn’t Wang’s longest work. His debut, 2003’s West of the Tracks, runs nine hours, and 2008’s Crude Oil (also set in the Gobi Desert) is 14 hours long. But here, he puts a strong emphasis on testimony over action, giving his attention to his interviewees, survivors of the camps who are now elderly. If he’s going to let these people tell their stories, then he (and the audience) will take the time to listen properly.
The China Onscreen Biennial is playing at various venues in Los Angeles and Washington, DC through November 18.