Of Time and the River: Mapping the Cinema of Luo Li

Li Wen at East Lake


By Shelly Kraicer

Over the last six years, Luo Li has established himself as one of the most interesting young Canadian directors on the international festival circuit, and one of the most promising Chinese independent directors to emerge in the last decade. Marked by narrative playfulness, implicitly subversive formal innovation, and elegant, beautifully crafted images, and pervaded by a remarkably gentle, unassuming confidence, his four features have already staked out something like a Luo Li universe. His camera is fascinated by the natural world, where animals, insects, and, especially, birds populate the margins between water and land. Humans, meanwhile, often appear as intruders: as lonely swimmers in inland lakes and rivers; as observers, researchers, or despoilers of the natural world; or in a more magical form as intermediaries, medium-like interpreters (or misinterpreters) residing between the human world and a spirit world that undergirds our conception of the natural. Li collapses boundaries, confounding those typically mutually exclusive categories that calcify our understanding of both the world (either historical or contemporary, either the natural or the manmade) and of cinema (either documentary or fiction).

What gives Luo Li’s cinema its understated eloquence is his deceptively easygoing way of integrating his use of film form with the narratives his films are (or appear to be) telling—a standard characteristic of what so much critical commentary marginalizes as “experimental” or avant-garde films, but something less expected in what are, fundamentally, narrative features. Formal self-awareness, an artist’s willingness to make the audience aware of, question, even interrogate the work’s constructedness, can be part of the pleasure of that work—in the way that, say, a Seurat painting is as much about pointillist theory and technique as it is about bathers by a river (to pick a telling point of comparison). So too do Li’s films gently provoke viewers with their evident artificiality, their existence as recorded and edited light and sound, which sits naturally alongside their more “conventional” pleasures of narrative tension, development, and resolution.

Born in China, where he grew up in the giant inland metropolis of Wuhan, Li later moved to Canada, acquired a BFA and MFA in film from York University in Toronto, and now lives in Hamilton, Ontario. After making two 16mm student shorts (Fly, 2004; Ornithology, 2005), Li conceived his first feature I Went to the Zoo the Other Day (2008) in China and shot it in Canada, in and around the Toronto Zoo. After opening in media res with a tactile black-and-white close-up of a pulsating section of a snake, the film introduces its human principals (who are at first present only as voices on the soundtrack), a young man and woman who are discussing their upcoming excursion to the zoo; the man seems to be reclusive, possibly depressed, and is only reluctantly persuaded to go by his female friend.

The zoo visit proper begins in the parking lot and admission lines, as Li inserts his characters into his documentary-style on-location footage. (Li’s subsequent three features offer variations on this technique, folding the fictional diegesis into real, crowded public spaces.) Subtle tensions ripple through the pair’s conversations as, provoked by observations of animal behaviour, they relate stories of sometimes-violent interactions between humans and animals (the woman’s brother tortured ants; a gorilla once attacked a visitor who entered its cage). What seems to particularly affect the male protagonist is captivity itself: he ruefully reflects on how elephants live longer in confinement than in the wild, and is fascinated by the scenario of a bird trapped in a falling cage suspended by a parachute—will the bird fly to stay aloft inside the cage as it falls? Here, in one image, Li captures the weightlessness—the fear of freedom and the paradoxical freedom of movement within captivity—that shapes the situations in which several characters in his films will find themselves.

After about 45 minutes, a crisis of sorts occurs, or as close to a crisis as Li permits for his determinedly quiet narratives: the man wanders off, disappears for a while, then reappears. (An echo of his possible breakdown before the film’s beginning?) We then see, from a car window, the two characters heading home (quite likely to Li’s adopted hometown of Hamilton, as they seem to be driving west through Toronto on Ontario’s 401 highway) as the final few minutes of the film’s soundtrack are filled by a tape of whale songs that the male protagonist plays—the sounds of a free, unbounded natural utopia, perhaps?

Rivers and My Father

Rivers and My Father

With Rivers and My Father (2010)—which won Li the Image Prize at the 2011 Images Film Festival and the Jury Prize from the 2010 China Independent Film Festival—Li returns to his Chinese hometown of Wuhan (where he would shoot his next two films) and himself plays the semi-fictional though substantially autobiographical narrator. After an opening sequence that shows him working at a university audiovisual equipment lab (a job Li had previously held at York), Li recounts how his father sent him a memoir, and how he then decided to film scenes based on his father’s life; following this, a series of intertitles give us “objective” information that is then recreated, as fragments, onscreen.

Where Zoo’s formal play, ingenious though it was, was contained within clearly demarcated spatial and temporal boundaries, Rivers is, appropriately, far more free-flowing in its experimentation. To begin with, Li has substantially enriched his visual palette: filming along the banks of the Yangtze, which flows through Wuhan, Li captures water, riverside quays, steps, boat traffic, the odd swimmer, and the various scenes of nature that line the riverbanks in subtly variegated grey tones that suggest traditional Chinese ink-brush painting, while the camera’s middle- to long-distance perspective imbues the images with a slight abstraction and three-dimensional substantiality that endows them with a Seurat-like solidity and shimmer.

More importantly, Rivers multiplies the layers of fiction and nonfiction with which Li is working. The film comprises the memories of Li’s father; Li’s childhood memories of riding on his father’s bike, sheltered by his father’s raincoat (whose representation as repeated views of asphalt glimpsed through a bike frame remains enigmatic for a considerable amount of time before we are able to read them as Li’s remembered and recreated childhood POV); Li’s filmed recreations of sections of his father’s memoir; and, in the film’s capping jeu d’esprit, an extended epilogue in which his father’s critique of those recreations—listing his objections to ambiguities, formal issues, and inaccuracies—are smoothly integrated into the film as intertitles.

These primary formal building blocks are supplemented by other recurring motifs. There is a repeated, subtly varied scene of a woman leading a child up the stone steps by the riverbank; shots of men swimming in the Yangtze among the boat traffic (accompanied at one point by a harrowing story about having to dive under the larger boats as they pass); recreated scenes of Li’s father as a child playing in the woods near the river with two friends, while a voiceover hints at imminent danger (adding to the film’s already considerable ambiguity, the little boy representing Li’s father sometimes seems to also be Li himself as a child); documentary-style scenes of Li’s father and other members of his family talking about the past or sitting around a table eating lunch; interspersed shots of maps and rivers; and scenes of Li at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, presumably en route to Wuhan. Folding together these assorted sets of memories—insofar as memories are representable as concrete images at all—Rivers is Li’s most Proustian film: it reproduces the living character of memory, its images flowing like a river, malleable and recombinative.

Emperor Visits the Hell

Emperor Visits the Hell

Li’s next film, Emperor Visits the Hell (2012)—winner of the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival’s Dragons & Tigers Prize for Young Cinema and the Best Film award at the 2013 China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing—is a quietly astonishing tour de force that hinges on a lovely conceit: relocating the famous story of the Tang dynasty Taizong Emperor’s visit to the underworld (as retold in the classic Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West) to the present. In the tale a local river god, the Dragon King, is feuding with a fortune teller whose accuracy threatens his power. When he alters the weather without the authorization of the gods, he is condemned to death by the heavenly Jade Emperor, who orders the earthly emperor’s Prime Minister Wei Zheng to carry out the sentence. The Dragon King beseeches the Taizong Emperor to prevent his execution, which the Emperor swears to do. When he is unable to do so, however, otherworldly retribution is swift: after dying from a sudden, mysterious illness, the emperor is summoned to Hell to answer the Dragon King’s lawsuit in the court of the underworld; but, aided by Wei Zheng’s connections to highly placed underworld bureaucrats, he wins the suit and is restored to life.

The story’s scenario corresponds with the basic premise of Chinese gangster genre fiction, which portrays how people embedded in a system, possessed of varying levels of power and responsibility, negotiate conflicts in order to save face (and lives). That same system applies to China’s authoritarian bureaucracy, from ancient times to the post-Communist present: that which outsiders today brand “corruption” is merely the nexus of this ingrained tradition of influence and favour with the contemporary capitalist law of the jungle. These topological equivalences make Li’s transposition of the myth to the milieu of government bureaucrats and gangsters in present-day Wuhan—with the Taizong Emperor (here referred to by his personal name, Li Shimin) some kind of high party functionary and the Dragon King a local gang boss—an uncannily perfect fit, betraying neither allegorical strain nor conceptual cuteness.

Shooting in elegant, black-and-white long takes with a surgically precise attention to settings, props, and atmosphere, Li once again moves between several levels and types of narrative material: the historical record of the Taizong Emperor’s reign, the original descent-into-Hell myth, its transcription in Journey to the West, and a movie picture-book (of the kind popular in China in the ’70s and ’80s) of the very film we are watching, the captions from which punctuate the film. In a final reflexive manoeuvre, Li caps the film with what appears to be documentary footage from a cast-and-crew dinner, where Li Wen, the actor who plays Li Shimin, gets grandly and eloquently drunk and rails about those fault lines in Chinese society, politics, and morals that the film exposes.

Li Wen returns as the title character of Luo Li’s most recent film (and first in colour) Li Wen at East Lake, but rather than the Wuhan art teacher he is in real life, he is slowly revealed to be some kind of plainclothes cop or security agent. Like the real Li Wen, however, the film’s protagonist is a skilled painter (key scenes are filmed in Li Wen’s own studio) and an antiquarian obsessed with photographs documenting the penal history of China, particularly in its brutal Cultural Revolution period. There is a hint of the policier in the film’s ostensible narrative framework: in preparation for an upcoming visit of unnamed higher authorities, Li and his sidekick Zuo are charged with sterilizing Wuhan’s East Lake district of “disruptive elements,” in particular a “crazy man” who has been reported as telling a wild story about a Dragon King who has arisen from the lake (sound familiar?).

Thematically, Li Wen at East Lake is an extension of or commentary on Emperor Visits the Hell: where that previous film posited temporal power as but one stratum of authority (and not even the supreme one) within a multi-planed, mystical universe, here temporal power seeks to suppress spiritual/mythical narrativizing as a threat to its own authority. Formally, Li Wen also represents a reversal of Emperor: here we begin with documentary (or something close to it), as Li investigates the pressing local issue of a new amusement park whose construction has illegally encroached on East Lake, one of Wuhan’s most famous scenic spots. This first section includes footage of the first crowds to come through the park’s gates (shades of the opening of Zoo), as well as the reactions of local residents and activists. It was the protest art projects devised by this latter group that gave Li the impetus to make the film, and he includes a restaging of one of their performance pieces here: a scene of a meeting of “expert” bureaucrats who plan to obliterate East Lake entirely by building a second airport for the city.

While this performance initially reads as documentary, its surreal quality—as well as the reappearance of the meeting’s chairman later in the film as an artist friend of Li Wen’s, who seems to be engaged in some unspecified, politically risky activities—marks it as the film’s pivot point between reality and fiction. But as with all Li’s work, nothing is so clear-cut. In his role as cop, Li Wen interviews and interrogates real people—boatmen and -women, fishermen, graduate student researcher/activists—playing, and reacting, as themselves; meanwhile, a hilarious encounter between Li Wen and a post-structuralist graduate student is a staged re-enactment of conversations that the two had in actual fact. Li Wen’s barely restrained fury at the student’s challenge to the stability of his heterosexual persona suggests the first cracks in his identity as an agent of repression—cracks which are widened by his encounters with local storytellers who are the unofficial repositories of East Lake’s mythological history, and by his visit to a tiny Guanyin Temple to pray for his mother.

As Li Wen grows increasingly uncomfortable with his repressive role, the film introduces us to his tale-spinning target, a weird (though harmless) musician who tells a completely bizarre story about how, after Mao took a swim in East Lake (which actually happened: Li cuts in archival footage of the event), the musician ate the skin shed from the Chairman’s peeling feet, which enraged the Dragon King inhabiting the lake, for whom it was intended as an offering. One can read the Dragon King’s anger as deriving, in “reality,” from the destruction of its natural habitat by that nexus of power, money, and force—what Li Wen memorably defines as a baoli jiqi, or “violence machine”—that threatens tradition, suppresses resistance, and devastates beauty. At the same time, Luo Li suggests that a war is also taking place on the level of discourse, as a discourse of power is extirpating a discourse of aesthetics, of history, of the spirit. In Emperor Visits the Hell, those discourses are held in perfect equipoise; in Li Wen at East Lake, the violence machine seems to have prevailed.

However, just as bodily death proved no obstacle to the Taizong Emperor’s returning to life, Li Wen at East Lake abjures such fatalism. At the film’s end, our putative hero heads to the lakeshore—that most sensitive marginal zone—and goes for a swim. Head bobbing in the water, he clings to a wooden pole in the middle of the lake. Is he sinking? Floating? Desperate? Relieved? Like Luo Li’s cinema, he is immersed—swimming in a liminal space enveloping fact and fiction, myth and politics, buoyant, mobile, and utterly free.