Let’s start with a coincidence. The title of Part I, Chap. 1 of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: “Of Sense.” The name of the Harvard project headed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, whose new film, made in collaboration with Véréna Paravel, shares a title with Hobbes’ seminal work of political philosophy: the Sensory Ethnography Lab. This isn’t to say that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are Hobbesians, or that their Leviathan has any interest in social contract theory (though it might). No, it’s a useful coincidence as far as it brings sense front and centre, sets it up unmistakably as the root of our engagement with all that’s around us. Hobbes’ brief explication positions sense as a response to movements in an Other, one unconcerned with its status as a viewed-smelled-heard-touched-tasted object. And Leviathan—in contrast to so many films today that would hardly exist outside their audience’s heads—both applies this to the relationship between the camera and the world, and functions as such an object itself, a mass of sound and light vibrating in the dark, unknowable beyond the waves in our eyes and our ears.
As such, things can be terribly scary. But not, I think, the way that horror movies are frightening: there, a threat exists and the fear’s in the uncertainty of when and where it will come; here, it springs from having all the narrative we normally hang on to torn away, leaving us with only our senses to follow in the dark. It’s that lack of narrative that makes it seem ridiculous to call this something like “a documentary on commercial fishing in the North Atlantic off the coast of New Bedford.” Rather, Leviathan takes on the shape of the system it describes, a circular flow, choppy like those cold waves, that moves neither forward nor backward but simply works and accumulates (fish, footage) without ever linking to a history, an endgame.
After an appropriately ominous sounding epigraph taken from the book of Job, the film opens in darkness, not so much a beginning as one entry point picked from many possibilities. As the wind howls and machines clatter and clank, splashes of colour—red, blue, orange, green; all rich digital hues awash in low-light visual noise—creep or flash into view, gradually resolving into a horrifying image of labour, chains frantically wrapped as huge fishing nets emerge from the waves. This opening sequence continues for more than 20 minutes, the image drifting in and out of clear representation, the camera occasionally plunging overboard, diving into the churning wake only to crawl back onboard into the ongoing work. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s editing moves seamlessly among footage captured by a dozen tiny GoPro cameras, some manned by the filmmakers, others tossed overboard in waterproof containers, and the rest attached to the helmets of the fisherman. This invisible flux—four viewings in and I’m still not entirely certain when the first edit takes place—renders the whole world equally; there are simply images of and from things, all moving together in Vertovian harmony. That the experience is so unsettling only speaks to how infrequently life today requires us to engage this sensually.
The contrast between the three modes—underwater, worker-vision, and traditional (though these latter moments still find plenty of new angles, whether staring eye-to-eye with a decapitated fish as it slides across the deck or running up the armpit of a fisherman as he shucks scallop after scallop)—provides something like a structure for the film, a continuous, cyclical movement from uncertainty to immediacy to curiosity. What connects the three is the relationship to the world described above, the sense the camera regards what surrounds it, lets the world, natural and unnatural, in in such a way that these impressions shape the film as much as any intelligence behind the camera, creating the vibrating object that is Leviathan. Never before has the ocean been filmed as such, because never before has the ocean been allowed to register so directly (though David Gatten’s What the Water Said films achieve something similar ontologically, if not phenomenologically). Likewise, labour has never been seen this way, because never before has it been filmed with so little mediation, literally from within. When a fisherman turns his head quickly, or scurries quickly across the deck, and the image only registers a blur of movement, a smear of colour there and gone, there’s finally a sense of what work really is: the structures that let the capitalist praise work for its efficiency, or the vulgar Marxist to condemn it for its alienation, fall away and we’re left with the fact of labour as such, in all its complexity. It’s tiring to see and hear in a way that a traditionally clearer view could never be.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel counterweight these moments with their own steadier views, moments of calm duration as fish are slaughtered and scallops are shucked. If Leviathan only contained these it would still be great, a high-seas version of Franju’s Le sang des bêtes (1949). But in concert with the images from within the work, they express the whole system, brutal death reinserted into labour that we can see doesn’t allow for the time to stop and worry about such things.
Perhaps though it would be better to say that they’re too caught up in the motion, rather than that they don’t have the time (that they’re moving too fast), because time here is a sneaky, slippery thing. Given the film’s nearly perpetual night, there aren’t any temporal markers—the events captured could come from a single day as easily a month. Some events, like the rigging and deployment of two fishing nets seen schematically from a high perch or the ship’s captain dozing off as he watches Deadliest Catch on television, play out in real time. Others, such as the opening immersion, appear continuous even as their fluidity takes on an increasingly uncanny quality (i.e., I may not be sure when every edit occurs, but I know they’re there); the creeping doubt that time has been overtaken by filmed space. Here, as with the shifts among the modes of filming, there’s a respirational quality, expanding for moments where duration briefly regains a foothold before contracting to a condensed, contrived continuity. Or perhaps vice versa. In either case, time comes in through the eyes, whether it’s the weighted seconds of a fixed frame or the flood of moments in constant movement.
Which is to say that sensual time has replaced historical time. This is ultimately a more profound dislocation from narrative than the absence of characters or dialogue, and the base on which it builds this world removed from the mechanics of the market, the great historical marker of our young century. It would make no sense to follow these fisherman back to the sale of their haul, because at no point does the film acknowledge the sort of time that renders an event complete. Sensual time links actions into an ongoing stream: rays are caught; they are butchered; the undesirable parts are tossed overboard; blood flows into the sea; gulls are attracted to the floating carcasses; they dive into the waves to eat; the waves rock the boat; men shower amidst the rocking; they return to work…And so it goes.
In this stream of the sensual, every colour seen, every sound heard, is a little step closer to freedom from all those stories and histories that the 20th century collapsed under. There’s no more “Once upon a time…,” which isn’t to say there’s no more history. It’s there to be felt, whether in the lunar, ravaged face of the ship’s captain or the numb efficiency with which men slaughter fish. It’s there in the way a fisherman lights two cigarettes, one for himself and one for the man working with him. And it’s there in the mountain of hundreds, maybe thousands of fish that tumble out of a net and cover the camera at one point, leaving just the tiniest sliver of light wrought red through reflection, the most poignantly Brakhagian moment in a movie full of them. In each of these a history imprints itself on the present, expresses itself in a way that can be followed back to a fuller understanding of now.
Both Sweetgrass (made by Castaing-Taylor with Ilisa Barbash, 2009) and Foreign Parts (made by Paravel with J.P. Sniadecki, 2010) are elegies for communities at the edge of irrelevance: a group of Montana cowboys in the former, a slum economy in the latter. They’re stories of what happens at the business end of progress—industrialization, gentrification—where jobs are lost, homes are destroyed, lives are set adrift. Both are, in their sense of commitment, their perspicacity, exceptional films, doubly commendable for offering a record of what’s been lost to mindless forward motion. Still, both also can’t help but tell old stories: lives spoken, journeys taken, landscapes and junkyards we know even if we don’t. What sets Leviathan apart is its ability to present the world, now, anew; until we’re out from under the weight of all these narratives—which in the digital age only proliferate—it’ll remain just as urgent. At the heart of all this is a very old, simple argument: that to know the world is to first know its beauty.
Beauty, here, is everywhere, as much in the sticky rich red of the blood that oozes down the side of a container where fish are hacked to pieces as in the play between blue-green and orange when a huge net bring a universe of debris—starfish, shells, sand—with it toward the surface. It’s there in a strange sequence that follows a water bird as it roots around the deck, the camera tracking it at ground level, capturing the glistening wet of its feathers as it looks desperately for something it can’t seem to find before abandoning its search and plunging overboard into stormy seas. That the manic comedy of this little avian Chaplin leads possibly to death is fitting: real beauty needs real stakes. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel make this clear with a closing credit dedicating the film to ten ships, “and countless others,” lost to the same waters they filmed on. (The second credit curiosity is a listing, in Latin, of all the species that appear in the film, a little reminder of the camera’s ability to accept all the world’s impressions equally.)
So we can follow this movement, from beauty to the world to everything that is behind the world. All of it enters through our eyes and our ears, vibrating directly on us. What this says is: there is a world out there and it is huge and I am in it. Leviathan doesn’t ask us to bring anything to it; it doesn’t need our stories, our knowledge, our prejudices. In its indifference to our presence it’s a nice reminder of why the movies can be so affecting in the first place, of what it feels like to be confronted with something that is truly outside of everything our experiences have taught us. Here is a true 21st-century ethnography, the results of a study of foreign culture—a social and industrial space very few people will ever know first-hand—illuminating not only that culture, but also cutting through the stories and forcing us to reconsider our mode of engaging with all that is not ourselves.
Leviathan ends with its most disorienting sequence, a spatially jumbled journey that flies with gulls seen from below beneath a gaping starless sky, then plunges into black-green water, emerges to view the gulls from above—the image flipped so ocean becomes sky—and ends back in the rushing darkness of rough seas. Like everything that came before, it’s truly spectacular, an optic-aural overload whose aim isn’t to force us into submission but to knock us off our bearings, to prompt an increase in our energies of engagement. Each viewing of Leviathan has, fittingly, given the hundreds of gulls that swoop and caw throughout, left me feeling a little like Tippi & Co. at the end of The Birds (1963): grateful and alive and scared and aware of all that’s around me like never before.
While “art film” has become an ugly term in some circles, redolent of a set of self-conscious bourgeois strategies, Ying Liang is a meticulous filmmaker whose deceptively simple manoeuvres serve to renew the very form. When Night Falls, much like Ying’s The Other Half (2006), exhibits a style that disrupts firm boundaries between fiction, essay, and documentary. For radical Chinese filmmakers today, these divisions represent impediments to accurate thinking, to attaining the means to represent unofficial, non-hegemonic truths. Ying, like such contemporaries as Jia Zhangke, Liu Jiayin, and Wang Bing, treats these classifications as more than historical conveniences that have worn out their welcome.
When Night Falls dramatizes a recent act of spontaneous political resistance that captured the nation’s attention in 2008 and turned a young murderer, Yang Jia, into a cause célèbre. Yang was caught in Shanghai riding an unlicensed bicycle, and could not prove it was his to the satisfaction of the bureau office, so he was arrested and beaten. He and his mother, Wang Jingmei, spent years going through the appropriate bureaucratic channels to have their grievances heard in an effort to bring the officers responsible for the beating to justice. (Anyone who knows the first thing about China’s legal system, or has seen Zhao Liang’s excellent 2009 film Petition, can guess the outcome.) In 2008, after being continually harassed, Yang killed six Shanghai police officers, was sentenced to death, and promptly executed.
Chinese authorities have already been on alert about Ying’s film since news of its production began circulating. Even four years after the fact, the case remains a highly sensitive matter. Ai Weiwei has already made a feature-length documentary about Yang, Yi ge Gupi de Ren, translated as One Recluse or A Lonely Man. Ai’s video examines the Yang case from many angles, particularly that of Chinese civil rights. While featuring commentary from various legal experts, A Lonely Man also shows Ai knocking on a lot of doors and being turned away, or Shanghai police shoving hands in his camera lens. While Mrs. Wang appears in the film, she was not its focus; she was interviewed at length in a separate epilogue video. (A Lonely Man is discussed in Ai’s interview with J.P. Sniadecki in Cinema Scope 49.)
The differences between Ai’s docu-tract and When Night Falls are highly instructive, and speak to the strategic deployment of ethos versus pathos in rhetorically oriented works of art. Whereas A Lonely Man, by necessity, engages broad questions of justice, with Yang and Wang as the central nodes around whom an entire citizenry swirls, When Night Falls, while hardly a conventional melodrama and certainly not without formal innovation, calls upon emotional identification with Mrs. Wang, her struggle and her loss, to make its broader political points resonate all that much stronger. In particular, watching this bereaved, browbeaten woman fight on behalf of her son represents a situational reversal of traditional filial piety, the parent “revering” her child before a stacked-deck legal structure and an uncertain court of public opinion.
Ying’s film begins with a languorous voiceover by Wang Jingmei (Nai An), who is shown fighting for her son’s survival. We hear her voice at the beginning and end, as Ying shows us actual photos and facts from the internet and Wang’s blog, documentary material that eases us into and out of a thinly fictionalized but emotionally heightened space; at one point Ying includes an image of Ai shooting, with a note about his involvement. In these opening and closing slide-show montages, When Night Falls marks its difference from most conventional docudramas, many of which break frame at the end with information about the real-life subject of the preceding film. Instead, Ying’s extended intro/outro approach implicitly incorporates Ai’s earlier effort, as well as bringing his own broader method into focus, zeroing the spectator in on the single subject, Wang Jingmei. When Night Falls could be said to iris in and out of the larger social realm, with the individual and her plight as the “vanishing point” throughout.
When Night Falls remains with Wang’s morose, determined but utterly exhausted point of view, as she reviews files with her sister and brother-in-law, accepts unsolicited help from volunteer “netizens,” and eventually faces off against representatives of the Chinese High Court. Ying’s visual approach is low-grade and washed out, indicating that he wisely chose to apply the Jeonju budget towards a wider overall scope rather than an equipment upgrade. Unlike most any other JDP effort (including The Great Cinema Party), When Night Falls is a film that bears no obvious traces of its origins in a specialized series. Its means and methods speak much more directly to the broader narrative syntax and formal shibboleths of Asian festival cinema. Nevertheless, his combination of still, angular master-shot cinematography and dim, flat images provides an analogue to the combination of heroism and futility than underlines Wang’s every effort. What restrictions exist, Ying enfolds into a saturating vision.
Part of what makes When Night Falls excel as a work of cinema, as well as a political intervention, comes from Ying’s harnessing of isolation and pathos for the express purpose of displaying, through spatial articulation and physical bombardment, what it feels like when the entire apparatus of the Chinese government bears down on a lone individual. A great deal of this results from Nai’s performance as Wang, whose slow, hunched movements through Ying’s deep, recessed compositions return a specific social valence to Antonioni/Tsai architectural imprisonment. One particularly fine shot finds Wang walking alone through a street towards the camera as an unseen loudspeaker trumpets the “splendid” Olympic Games. A woman bikes past her quizzically. The scene would be Kafkaesque except there is no paranoia, only bone-aching sorrow. In several other scenes, Ying places Wang at centre frame in the midst of a collection of angry young activists, all questioning her or completing her arguments, all the better to help fight “her” cause. (There’s also a young man videotaping everything, naturally.) After they thoughtlessly follow her home after the verdict, she expels them from her walk-up them as if they were moneychangers. “Who allowed you to film? Why are you following me? I know none of you!” (“Jingmei is in a bad mood and I hope you understand,” her sister apologizes.)
Ying includes moments that are both amusing and pathetic, providing unique angles on this hopelessness. The mother’s attempts to get a senile tailor to replace Yang’s pants zippers with buttons, so he can wear them before he dies, are tender and tragicomic; a late-night call to a near-stranger, whose lost wallet Yang once returned when he found it in a cab, is an agonizing plea for decency from any corner. The overall trajectory of When Night Falls, in terms of its focus on the collateral human damage surrounding a violent event rather than the event itself, recalls Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010). (Wang herself was detained in a mental hospital for 143 days, by order of the Shanghai police, following Yang’s arrest. However, Ying’s film strategically avoids the sensationalism of depicting that stay, and picks up well afterward.)
Ying and various members of his family were subjected to harassment and threatened with arrest, both before and after When Night Falls premiered in Jeonju. (Government officials allegedly even offered to purchase the film rights from the festival for an exorbitant sum, so as to effectively bury it.) There is much more to say about this unsavoury incident, but it has been well documented elsewhere, not least by Ying himself. His letter, “Nothing About Cinema, Everything About Freedom,” (dgeneratefilms.com/china-today/nothing-about-cinema-everything-about-freedom-by-ying-liang) provides both a timeline of the events as he experienced them, and his own lucid and invaluable perspective on the matter. It’s also important that Ying’s film has a life—a critical life, a film life—apart from the acts of attempted censorship that were and may still be perpetrated against it. As Ying writes, “the fact that the film has become a topic as such can’t be more embarrassing and unfortunate.” Of course, he goes on to fight for his film, as we all should. But part of fighting for When Night Falls is to refuse to reduce it to a political football. It’s clearly one of the year’s key films. And it would have been regardless.