China is massive. It is changing, daily, at a staggering pace. A dirt-paved plot of land, lined with children scavenging for spare change: Weeks later, and it's the world's largest sporting goods store, complete with ground-floor cafe. Drop your laundry off on the way to dinner, only to return the following morning and see that the strip of buildings has been reduced to rubble; they moved across town to a fancier location while you were sleeping.
These stories, these impressions of narrative, are fairly commonplace, and most people who have spent time in China's cities have experienced something like them. For those of us who return to swap such tales in calmer environs, it's kind of an anecdotal shorthand for the complex thicket of global forces that converge in China, over there. But for those whose lives are shaped daily by such forces, making sense of this scale of change becomes an ongoing negotiation with what Chinese filmmaker Huang Weikai refers to as "absurdity."
Over the weekend, I saw Weikai's new-ish documentary, Disorder, at New York University's Reel China festival. I'm generally intrigued by the films being made in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the mainland, particularly the overarching preference for slower, more atmospheric approaches to narrative and painstaking, almost tedious attention to everyday detail. You wander into a film about rural China and leave, three or four hours later, feeling profoundly exhausted. Just as you grasp at a narrative thread, it seems to dissolve into thin air.
Disorder was one of the most mesmerizing films I've seen in ages. Rendered in a grainy black and white, the film consists of a random sequence of brief, minute-or-so glimpses into the various spaces of Guangzhou's public life. It's bracing, occasionally confusing, and heavily ideas-driven—Weikai assembled the footage from over one-thousand hours of footage he collected from other, amateur filmmakers, and while stitching this footage together, he followed but one rule: No successive scenes could come from the same source tape. It's a film that aspires toward democracy, that hopes to represent the multitude.
And yet, a priori to these ideas and gestures, Disorder is simply a gripping, stirring, occasionally shocking experience. Part of this is due to Weikai's playful juxtapositions: Men jostling with a pig, trying in vain to coax it back into a truck; panicking policemen, quelling a contextless near-riot, shoving someone's mother into a wagon; a shirtless, unhinged man crossing a busy intersection, only he has nowhere to go; another shirtless man, armed with grievances, disarmingly lucid about why he is perched on the railing of a bridge. These are all unrelated scenes, captured by unrelated cameras. But mostly, the power of Disorder rests in the associations we draw from Weikai's raw materials, the narratives we surmise, the moments that are savagely funny or miserably sad, if that's what you want them to be. Perhaps you thought some of the scenes—grainy messes of inscrutable action—resembled a music video.
After the film, Weikai discussed this emerging idea of a distinctly Chinese "absurdity"—a condition of life related to but distinct from previous expressions of the absurd, like Kafka or magical realism. This was a theme many Chinese artists were contemplating, he explained, and it offered a fascinating way to think about Disorder in particular, and the documentary genre in general. While this was a film about the everyday effects of globalization and progress, it wasn't a polemic about causes. It was about a common, daily effect: this was a film about people who had accepted a measure of absurdity in their lives. This was the ruling condition of all the scattered scenes, from the cop—powerless, ultimately—brokering a deal between two aggrieved citizens, to the family—bemused but not shocked—who happen upon an orphaned baby in the brush.
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