Breathless Animals (China, 2019)

Dreams are the memories of another life – or so the saying goes, whatever that may mean. If one could identify a subject for Lei Lei’s latest feature-length documentary, Breathless Animals, it would be the dreams of another time. In this bizarre and highly experimental piece, Lei explores the mundane details of the past through a single person’s perspective, their memories, and their dreams, thus filtering through the silent nostalgia of an almost unrecognizable past.

Breathless Animals is a difficult film to summarize. The majority of its 1 hour and 9 minutes running time consists of various still images and footage from the 70s and 80s manipulated with various artistic effects and the occasional voice over recounting random events from a person’s past life. Initially, the interviewee is an anonymous woman who reminisces about her time growing up in 70s and 80s communist China. Intermittently we learn about her experiences and dreams when she was younger – her fear of hurting animals, her school days, her father’s internment, etc. – slowly forming a mental picture of her life. Eventually, it is revealed that the interviewee is the director’s mother, talking about her past. 

Just as it’s hard to summarize, Breathless Animals is also a hard film to interpret, if one is generous enough to assume the existence of an interpretation. One the one-hand, the voice-over narration clearly tells a story – however scattered – that offers remarkable insight about the China of the 70s and 80s. A lot of these details are mundane, but in a way, that makes them more powerful. Notably, the film does not take a moral stance on the events that the interviewee describes. Whether it is pleasant moments of family love or political internment, the director allows these memories to carry their own weight without interference. However, these voice-over moments are scarce and aggressively diluted throughout the movie. Most of it is occupied by the random images flashing in silence (or rather, in a projector-like noise humming in the background) across the screen without a clear connection to the story that interviewee is telling. In other words, there’s no apparent unifying thread to hold the documentary together.

According to director Lei Lei, the content consists primarily of found footage he has been collecting over the years. The director presents an evocative collection of images and clips, but the incessant replication of patterns becomes tired very quickly. Rather than a mature work of art, Breathless Animal feels a lot more like careless experimentation without any rhyme or reason. There’s cardboard cut-outs dancing in the middle of the screen, loops of mundane footage that go on for minutes, and shot inserts that don’t make much sense. The insight is minimal, and whatever meaning may be hidden in the director’s visual escapades vanishes in randomness and repetition. Perhaps that assessment is a tad unfair since the film is, after all, a personal statement – and one may appreciate it as such. Transgressions are more tolerable if one accepts the film’s initial premise: an exercise in the subjective. Though the lack of cohesion and clear meaning is a hard pill to swallow, Breathless Animals does, nevertheless, catch one’s attention with its bizarre and fancy experimentation, even if at the cost of the story it’s trying to tell.

Breathless Animals will not appeal to everyone – admittedly, it did not appeal to me. Due to its highly experimental nature, not everyone will be able to connect with the film’s message, whatever that may be. But while Breathless Animals is a hard film to like, it is not impossible. Just like many forms of abstract act, one may be able to find the beauty in an otherwise chaotic creation.