Zhao Dayong leapt to the forefront of China’s independent documentary movement with Street Life (2006), an unflinching portrait of the lives of migrant workers in Shanghai, then cemented his reputation with Ghost Town (2009) which observed the inhabitants of Zhiziluo, a remote village location of the border on China and Myanmar that has been left behind in the rush to modernization. It’s the latter subject that Zhao revisits for his second narrative feature Shadow Days, a disquieting mood piece that direct tackles controversial social issues while creating an eerie atmosphere from its economically neglected environment. While the director’s first narrative project The High Life (2010) was an exercise in fact/fiction hybridity, with a real-life Guangzhou prison guard and ‘trash poet’ serving as the jumping off point for a study of the city’s underbelly, Shadow Days finds Zhao adopting a deceptively pared-down narrative style that incorporates moments of vivid surrealism to illustrate spiritual deterioration. Rural life is here seen from the hopeful perspective of Liang Renwei’s (Liang Ming) who has returned to his hometown with his pregnant girlfriend, Pomegranate (Li Ziqian) in toe, but is something of an outsider having been away for the best part of 20 years seeking prosperity that has evidently eluded him. Following an incident that forced him to run away from the urban sprawl, Liang is seeking sanctuary in this relatively closed community, but discovers that China’s problems are only further amplified in a place that tries to hold on to the ideologies of the past.
Liang’s decision to build a new life in Zhiziluo as he and Pomegranate prepare for the birth of their child initially seems like a sound one as he is accepted back into the community, while the surrounding landscape is initially framed as a serene hideaway. Zhao is soon picking away this idyllic visage, however, as Liang accepts a job at the local family planning clinic that is arranged by his uncle, who is also the mayor, over a card game. Liang’s new profession entails forcing women to abort their pregnancies in order to strictly enforce China’s one-child policy, an unpleasant task that he nonetheless quickly adapts to, with his methods for rounding up women for the procedure enabling the team to meet their quota. However, this causes him to become distant from Pomegranate, who is mostly left alone, lapsing into the monotonous rhythm of life in a place where one day blurs into the next, and catching fateful glimpses of the ghosts that haunt the corners of sparsely furnished rooms. Extending the themes of Ghost Town through the layered language of fiction, Shadow Days further positions Zhiziluo as a haunted space that bears the scars of such social ruptures as the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the economic reforms of the 1980s as its community slowly but surely withers away. In an unhurried but deliberate manner, Zhao explores the town’s mostly empty buildings, which have presumably been marked for demolition but may yet collapse before the wrecking ball arrives.
It’s also a community where superstition exerts a powerful force: when Liang’s uncle falls ill, the elder official is given the cold shoulder by the other locals as they believe that he has been cursed and do not wish to be tainted by association. Such beliefs are blindly held, as is the uncle’s solution to his predicament, which is to seek a shaman, a priest and an image of Chairman Mao to cast away the curse through an exorcism. This situation also brings unwanted attention on Liang and Pomegranate, who should seriously consider leaving but, by this point, are trapped in an earthly limbo; Liang is very much a ‘living ghost’ due not really belonging anywhere and limited to tormenting others as a means of expression. Shadow Days is full of troubling signifiers that give way to unsettling apparitions, a ‘horror film’ in the sense that it addresses the cruelty that a country is inflicting on itself, and how the greatest pain is experienced by those who follow without questioning the basis for their loyalty. Events remain grounded in realism due to Zhao’s background in documentary: amateur actors blend effortlessly with professionals, the camera maintains a studied distance, and the naturalistic soundscapes are filled with everyday chatter, creaking structures, and cries of desperation.
Zhao shares the concern of cultural erosion with other Chinese independent filmmakers, but the ominous manner in which he sifts through the relics of the past to fearlessly confront the problems of the present serves to make Shadow Days a uniquely disturbing social critique.