Although largely overlooked on release in 1997, Wim Wenders’ neo-noir The End of Violence turned out to be stunningly prophetic in its speculation of how all-seeing surveillance technology would come to impassively record our every move. Leaping forward to 2017, by which time such extensive monitoring has been widely accepted as a necessary security measure, we have Dragonfly Eyes, a provocative experimental feature reportedly culled from 10,000 hours of legally accessible, cloud-based surveillance footage.
Directed by the renowned visual artist Xu Bing in collaboration with dedicated editors Matthieu Laclau and Zhang Wenchao, the film thrives on the manner in imagination is triggered as much by mundane everyday situations as out of the ordinary happenings, not to mention our need to explain events by situating them in concrete narratives. Their concentrated efforts constitute an ambitious exercise in voyeurism where an involving story and a myriad of topical social concerns arise from the utilization of closed-circuit recordings that are often partially obscured and generally inaudible.
Providing a synopsis of the film’s narrative illustrates how what could have been a grainy collage plays for the most part like a regular feature with characters seeking fulfillment only to be pulled into a series of conflicts with themselves and others. We first encounter Qing Ting (voiced by Liu Yong Fang) at a Buddhist temple where she raises objections to proposed renovations. Deciding she needs to compare this monastic existence to the secular world, she leaves and gets a job at mechanized dairy farm. There, she starts a relationship of sorts with besotted technician Ke Fan (voiced by Su Shang Qing), but both have to seek alternative employment after getting into trouble with the boss.
From here, Qing Ting falls into the typical cycle of the uneducated worker. Moving from city to city, she takes on a run of menial jobs from which she is unceremoniously fired, often for unfair reasons. After yet another setback, Qing Ting declares that one can only succeed in society by changing either their mind or appearance, and makes an appointment for a cosmetic procedure. Emerging as Xiao Xiao, she embarks on a new career as live streaming star, swiftly accumulating copious admirers who shower her with gifts. However, the obsessed Ke Fang will not be deterred and tries to reconnect with Qing Ting after learning of her new persona.
China owes its independent cinema to the development of digital technology, specifically the affordable, lightweight cameras that enabled a new generation of filmmakers and documentarians to shoot in a clandestine manner. “My camera does not lie,” declared the unseen videographer in Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000), convinced of the objectivity of his recordings. Despite its seemingly audacious approach, Dragonfly Eyes is arguably an inevitable extension of this underground rhetoric. Xu has fashioned fragments of reality into a cinematic ruse or distortion, which in turn illustrates wider truths about an accelerated society. Qing Ting/Xiao Xiao and Ke Fan may be no more authentic than the protagonists of a clichéd melodrama yet the twists and turns of their fabricated relationship are instigated by flashes of violence, fixations with celebrity, and identity issues that are rife in today’s China.
The surveillance footage also proves to be surprisingly malleable in terms of genre and form. At times we’re in slow cinema territory with the fixed shots left to play out in static fashion as the characters engage in everyday activities or have humdrum conversations. However, it sometimes evokes the mood of a psychological thriller when the tempo quickens and Yoshihiro Hanno’s foreboding electronic score kicks in. There’s also a mondo element to the incorporation of footage showing collapsing buildings, highway accidents, and sudden public beatings. A road range incident becomes a brutal turning point in the narrative but others are randomly spliced in or relayed in a montage fashion as Xu hits the viewer with a barrage of disasters.
This should result in desensitization but keeping the viewer at a distance instead prompts a desperate search for traces of humanity within chillingly detached images of China’s postmodern condition.