Turtle Rock (China, 2017) [CVF/BFI Southbank Chinese New Year 2019]

The documentary Turtle Rock, set in the mountain village of Tuan Yu Yan, may be artist Xiao Xiao’s first venture into filmmaking (Wu Wenguang and Hong Guo-Juin are credited as art advisors) but it continues and extends the interconnected themes of space, time, and individual experience explored in his “Rational Reality” photography series (2010-2016). In the case of Turtle Rock, the individual experience is also personal. Xiao Xiao spent a number of his childhood years in the village, where only ten families have settled during the last century and where his grandmother (to whom he dedicates the film) was part of the first generation of people born there. Xiao Xiao returned to Tuan Yu Yan several years ago and began to film its dimensions, people, and how they are intimately linked; not to interrogate but rather to contemplate, discover, and, above all, quietly but insistently represent while also remembering one’s previous experiences there. For though the village and its inhabitants follow a simple way of life that has persisted since the first settlers, the passage of time is nevertheless palpable and small villages like it are slowly disappearing due to the ever-increasing exodus of people to more developed towns/cities for education and livelihood.

The film’s opening images, of drawings of dwellings in the dirt and then of actual standing houses in the village (even a spider and its own gossamer abode), and the black-and-white cinematography immediately and simultaneously express an impulse to capture the past-present history of this place and the distinct geo-emotional qualities that have taken root. Though technically not the first figure to appear in the film, a subsequent long take following an elderly woman walking down a road and then taking a shortcut through a hill constitutes the film and spectator’s entry point into the village proper. She is a grandmother whose son and grandson have returned to the village and is a striking, stabilising presence throughout the film.

The film’s visual style is unsurprisingly immersive-observational, navigating between the terrain of bodies on the socio-economic margins and the physical terrain paradoxically rendered all the more lush by the black-and-white cinematography. A man feeding chickens. Another man cutting down bamboo. People carrying timber bamboo on their shoulders. Villagers seated and conversing about money. Men re-tiling a roof. Men around a pot over a campfire discussing child-rearing issues while a dog sleeps at their feet. Grandmother and her granddaughter framed by a doorway and shadows. Grandmother cooking inside her kitchen. Such scenes, shot often in long takes as befitting the village’s unhurried pace, are like still lifes that together subtly provide a portrait of the community. ‘Subtle’ is the operative word: the film refuses to piece together these different fragments of life in the village, or betray the distinct experience of time that the village asks of its inhabitants, through a tacked-on dramatic storyline or didactic message about existence or sweeping social changes in China, let alone a voiceover, for the spectator.

Further fragmenting yet also adding to this spatiotemporal portrait of the community are alternating establishing shots of the space that surrounds and constitutes the village. These shots are often idyllic, bereft of people, and therefore tranquil and quiet, even when accompanied by strong winds or rain, which belie the amount of daily labour required to live there. Xiao Xiao even reveals a propensity towards the play of light and shadow, as pillow shots of light and darkness battling for space or the wind dancing around objects are frequent. They recall, in fact, Xiao Xiao’s 2016 video work on the experience/perception of time, “Timeless,” which loops footage of a camera moving counterclockwise as it gazes on a grandfather-type of clock set on a seashore with waves lapping around it.

Two sequences stand out in the way they merge body, land, time, and image, and poise Xiao Xiao as among the ones-to-watch (documentary) filmmakers. The first sequence begins with the grandmother inside her house singing a spell to ward off evil. Though the first shot in the sequence focuses on the grandmother, the camera begins to pan left and upward towards the light bulb that provides the only source of illumination in the house. While the grandmother’s singing continues on the soundtrack, the image-track cuts to the turtle-rock formation to which the village owes it name, then to persons walking a winding path away from the camera and towards fog, and finally to a long shot of terrace fields that are rendered spectral as fog wafts across the frame from right to left. This sense of spectrality continues in the other sequence, which occurs upon the grandmother’s above-mentioned first appearance: though taking the shortcut places her on a higher plane than the camera, the latter continues to track her movements until she disappears out of view by virtue of the angle, but which produces the uncanny effect of spectralising her.

Between the anticipation of disappearance and the sense of nostalgia in relation to place, Turtle Rock not only presents a specific hometown but also addresses, even makes tangible, the abstract sense of ‘hometown,’ including the ironic component of ephemerality.

Turtle Rock is showing as part of Chinese New Year 2019 – CVF at BFI Southbank on January 21.