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.