Opening this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in London is Beijing-based independent filmmaker-multimedia artist Ju Anqi’s latest work, the short film Drill Man (2016). Absurdist and seriocomic, it follows a young man (Li Binyuan) armed with a drill who proceeds to drill through anything and everything that he encounters as he traipses from rural to urban spaces and back, through various modes of transport. In broad daylight and plain sight, he drills holes into trees, walls (including the Great Wall), bus seats, a train toilet facility, chairs, TVs, vehicles, boats, the ground, produce, and even flowers. In a sense, then, he is like a graffiti artist, leaving a physical imprint of his presence and, dare one say it, identity, given their ephemeral quality. Though he does not utter one word in the film, he also has a confrontational aspect to his vocation, in the rare occasion that he interacts with people: trying to drill a stuffed teddy bear carried by a man; drilling watermelons directly in front of the man who is tending the fruit stand; drilling a giant ribbon atop a new car right in front of a salesman. Yet it is not the confrontational aspect of what he does, but rather his silence and the spaces through which he travels (often by foot) as a ‘drill man’ that invite or inject significance to the film’s absurdist seriocomedy. His very itinerancy and the frequent sites of construction – empty, abandoned, or half-finished buildings, in which he sometimes steals a night of rest – cannot but bring up the plight of migrant workers on a certain level. Though the film hardly attempts to make such a parallel, the drill man’s nomadic, in/visible or un/seen labour, as it were, can be strongly read to mirror the life and labour of migrant workers in big cities. In this context, the film’s concluding enigmatic images gain a tremendous power, visualising in a sense the expendability of bodies and reducing them to the tools that they use.
Drill Man’s itinerant and at times confrontational figure in fact gestures towards Ju’s previous work, particularly the two of the three films also screening at CVF, his debut There’s a A Strong Wind in Beijing (2000) and his most recent feature-length effort Poet on a Business Trip (2015). All three of these films delineate what can be called Ju’s I-cinema: itinerant, invasive, and independent filmmaking, while also containing sociocultural commentary that is neither forced nor moralising.
There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing is a short shot in 16mm colour film, in the spring of 1999. Though on first viewing it is rather disorienting, the film’s first series of images establishes its landscape of focus and candid approach to interacting with people in that landscape. As the title states, the focus is Beijing. And the film’s candid approach consists of Ju (as sound recorder) and his cameraman Liu Yong Hong sticking a makeshift mic (taped on a TV antenna) in people’s faces, with the camera right behind, in answer to the question ‘Do you think the wind is strong in Beijing?’ Though at times people ask for clarification, the answers are on the whole practical (‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ ‘It can be, but it hasn’t been lately,’ etc.), even if the tone of delivery varies (affable, reserved, surprised). In other cases, people pay no mind to the filmmakers and continue walking past them.
The film presents the encounters with passersby in two ways, perhaps to break the inevitable monotony of one technique: either through intertitles, while the soundtrack captures the actual dialogue taking place, or through footage of the dialogue itself. The latter footage vividly recalls the candid, often amusing on-the-street question-and-answer sequence in Chronicle of a Summer (1961), made possible by the then newly developed mobile, sync-sound recording equipment. Through such encounters in both films, they capture a cross-section of inhabitants in their respective cities, Paris and Beijing. However, Ju’s short film differs from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s feature-length collaboration by following through with on-the-street interviews for the entire film without singling out one person or a group on whom to focus. In fact, Ju approaches both landscape and people in the same manner, off-the-cuff and casual, less to overtly address class, politics, and race as in Chronicle of a Summer and more to informally hint at a socioeconomically changing urban Chinese population on the cusp of the 21st century, in part beginning with his film and its manner of engaging people. For the film’s interactions are balanced by footage – sometimes with diegetic sound, other times without – of various parts of Beijing, mainly outdoors but occasionally indoors. Moreover, the film has a brisk pace; that is, as soon as Ju gets some kind of (non-)response to his query, he cuts, as if to register as many voices and bodies on film as possible.
Ju and Liu thus occupy and capture mainly public spaces where people tend to congregate or get a lot of foot traffic and are fearless with their camera and mic about approaching people, who are either working or walking by, on a daily routine or visiting a site: busy streets where a wedding car is parked on the sidewalk, an elderly woman pushes a trolley, an elderly man collects trash; Tiananmen Square amongst crowds asking, even startling, people with the question of how they feel about being there; bus stops where people wait for (and sometimes complain about the lateness of) the bus; a hospital corridor; an apartment complex where Ju explains to tenants that he is doing a film survey; an eatery where Ju asks patrons if he can sit and eat with them; an elementary school; and beauty parlours where everyone hurriedly flees from the camera. The film even attends the wedding ceremony to which the wedding car alludes, with Ju asking the groom about the wind in Beijing! But precisely through this chosen method of addressing (even accosting) passersby, Ju curiously blurs the lines between inside/outside and public and private. Subsequently, the film’s playfulness and the aforementioned blurred lines become more explicit.
In truth, despite the film’s title, Ju poses different questions to tap into diverse interactions, from offering a cigarette to people, asking couples if they are happy together, to asking if one’s life is superior to others, if he can use one’s cell phone, or what their ideals are, in addition to inquiring about the wind conditions in Beijing. Encapsulating the film’s playfulness and blurring of inside/outside, public/private is when Ju and Liu enter a public restroom and chance upon a man in the midst of defecating. While surprised, the man does not give way to anger and instead responds to Ju’s question!
Near the end of the film is another interaction that stands out even more so, for its contrasting straightforwardness and duration. It is part of a longer sequence that begins with eavesdropping on a couple’s conversation on a public phone about their daughter, who has cancer, and how much they have spent on seeing doctors, and concludes with accompanying them to the hospital to see her, thus constituting a short film unto itself. Though striking a discordant (somber) tone compared to the rest of the film, Ju demonstrates through this sequence that always lurking beneath the veneer of his jokey ‘candid camera’ approach is the stark reality of day-to-day living in which some people find themselves, which is at bottom his ultimate focus.
The same can certainly be said of Poet on a Business Trip (2015). In some ways, it is timely that Ju released this film only recently, given that he shot the footage with his cast and crew back in 2002. Though tonally different, Poet on a Business Trip can be put in dialogue with Pema Tseden’s Tharlo (2015) and even Zhang Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone (2016) in terms of capturing communities in the autonomous regions of China. And more specifically, they capture communities in socioeconomic transition, or perhaps limbo. While Tharlo is set in the present in following a Tibetan man’s Byzantine quest to obtain an I.D. card, The Summer Is Gone is set in the recent past of early/mid-1990s and in a quiet close-knit neighbourhood in Inner Mongolia gradually feeling the impact of privatisation. Poet on a Business Trip accompanies a Shanghai-based poet’s 40-day journey in and around Xinjiang Uyghur. All three films also share the quality of being shot in black-and-white, which lends them a documentary-ness when paired with their rather similarly unadorned, even minimalist, visual styles. However, Poet on a Business Trip sits apart from the two titles for one, its outsider perspective; two, its overtly blurred lines of documentary and fiction; and three, its introspective and immersive nature, structured as it is by the poet’s poems. Ultimately, these three qualities collapse into each other as the film progresses, thereby also playing with the divide between inside/outside, actual/staged.
The poet in question is Shu (Hou Xianbo), first introduced in voiceover over the film’s first shot/footage of a couple covered by a bed sheet having sex. One half of the couple, post-coitus, is revealed by a cut to be Shu, whose narration speaks of going on a business trip in 2002 and writing 16 poems in the course of that trip. As if on cue, the first poem appears in an intertitle. Over the course of the film, the other 15 poems are presented to the spectator, some in the form of intertitles – with Shu occasionally reciting them – and others over footage, usually accompanied by extradiegetic zither music. The poems ultimately serve as subjective and emotional punctuations for what is essentially a road movie; put another way, they function as moments of reflective respite from the physically arduous journey that Shu undertakes, thus lending the film a very introspective quality that is not found in either The Summer Is Gone or Tharlo – or in the two other works by Ju discussed above.
The camera accompanies Shu on his journey, but does not intentionally disclose his destination or stops. Only loosely and casually does the film designate its spatial coordinates, through (bilingual Uyghur-Mandarin) signage over which the camera eye passes or casual references in conversations. For the uninitiated, and for whom places/names mentioned in the film outside of the China-Kazakhstan border such as Bosten Lake, Gangou, Kumishi, Nalati, Urho, Burqin, or Sailimiu Lake are altogether unfamiliar, the film provides at its conclusion an intertitle specifying Xinjiang as the site of filming in September 2002. In this way, Ju avoids overdetermining the film’s meaning and content as political if he had explicitly denoted Xinjiang from the start. While Xinjiang has indeed witnessed ethnic tensions resulting in violence between local Uyghurs and Chinese authorities during the last couple of years, and where protests by the former in 2008 and 2009 left hundreds dead, the Xinjiang in this film is allowed to be and nothing more, without (sociopolitical) context outside of Shu’s own personal encounters with the region and its inhabitants. Yet it is undeniable that, when viewed today, this unintended contrast is what injects a new layer of significance to the film.
The world of the film is unceremonious and relaxed, even gritty, as Shu’s trip is extremely low-budget. To get from place to place, he uses every means possible, with relative ease if physically tiring: going on foot, taking the bus, hitching rides with truck drivers, hiring a car service, and carpooling with newfound companions. In this way, though he is a solitary traveler, he is only occasionally alone; at nearly every stop, he inquires about prostitutes, with whom he often spends his nights. (In fact, the film is bookended with Shu and another prostitute.) His lodgings range from a rented house, to hostels, to a Mongolian ger.
Stressing the film’s introspective nature driven by the poems, frequently the camera remains close to Shu; at times, it does so on such an intimate degree that it feels like the camera is a part of or on his body. Yet this inward-looking characteristic is not absolute. On one occasion, the camera, as it were, removes itself from Shu’s side to capture him in a medium shot and one long take telling the story of two mountain men and their demise to his fellow lodger at a hostel. Though seemingly contrasting with the rest of the film, it is perhaps the film’s most mesmerising sequence and presents an interesting case of oral storytelling that is actually in keeping with the lo-fi quality of the film, the technology-free nature of Shu’s trip (coincidentally, he tells the story when the hostel experiences a blackout), and interview-like segments. In turn, these aspects gesture towards the film’s larger but unspoken context of how this part of the world, Xinjiang, is not as industrialised or technologified as China proper, particularly Shanghai or Beijing. In this respect, an extended conversation between one of Shu’s travel companions and a local sheepherder later in the film also speaks to this larger context: though local and a sheepherder, the young man speaks of his travels around China and the (mis)perception of Xinjiang as perpetually backward compared to China. Notable here is that during this conversation, Shu is absent. The film has in this instance subtly shifted from an outside-in-the-inside perspective to a kind of a coexisting inside-outside, with neither one being subjected to othering.
One can even extend this idea of a coexisting inside-outside in the film’s docufiction element. With the exception of Hou as Shu, everyone on the film plays a version of themselves. Even as Shu, Hou is in a sense playing a version of himself as well as a reflection of Ju as the filmmaker. This last point is significant since Ju himself was born in Xinjiang. Not because his parents were native to the region but because they were sent to Xinjiang (from the south) for reeducation during the Cultural Revolution. Though his parents still live in Xinjiang, Ju is based in Beijing. And it is within and through these overlapping layers of inside-outside, actual-staged, and even past-present, that the film goes beyond being a simple ‘business trip.’
Ju Anqui will be a special guest of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival. Drill Man is showing on May 2 with Ju in conversation with Tony Rayns. Poet on a Business Trip is showing on May 3. There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing and Ju’s experimental short Big Characters are showing on May 6.