The first of many tranquil but enthralling moments in Kaili Blues comes during its opening scene, an uninterrupted shot that surveys the interior of a cramped medical clinic before drifting out onto the balcony. All we see there are a woman and a dog illuminated by a small fire pit, but first-time writer-director Bi Gan and cinematographer Wang Tianxing infuse the imagery with a feeling at once otherworldly and familiar — the kind of thing you can’t put a name to but would swear you’ve already experienced. The moment ends before anything has been resolved, a quotation from the Diamond Sutra taking its place as the screen goes black.
Like Kafka by way of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kaili Blues concerns a country doctor named Chen (Chen Yongzhong) who receives a request from his partner at that clinic to bring her former lover a trio of sentimental keepsakes: shirt, photo, cassette. He’s also tasked with taking care of his nephew, a child named Weiwei given to expressing his fear of the “wild men” who lurk at the edge of his consciousness (and potentially somewhere in the real world as well); when the boy goes missing — possibly because his father has sold him off — Chen sets off to fulfill his linked quests.
As with Weerasethakul, Bi’s hazy reverie betrays a sly political bent and lets a full 30 minutes elapse before announcing its title onscreen. Not long after, Wang launches an arresting 41-minute shot when Chen gets lost along the way — how could he not? — and ends up in a town where time isn’t an altogether linear experience.
In the most bravura and enchanting section of this extended sequence, a tour guide named Yangyang (Guo Yue) takes a short boat ride from one side of a river to the other, reciting guidebook factoids about Dangmai’s average temperature and elevation as she goes, before walking around for so long that Kaili Blues merges timelines and settles on a street concert attended by more than one person who’s no longer alive. Wang and Bi capture it all with mesmeric handheld camerawork that gives the lay of the land while mapping several characters’ inner lives, some of them long dead.
Wang’s camera frequently pans from one end of a room to the other, occasionally with the action taking place somewhere in the middle — these spaces exist on their own, and whatever occurs within them feels incidental, instantly lost to time. “I’m glad this old house is going to be torn down,” Chen says at one point. “I always have dreams when I sleep here.” He isn’t alone: The impulse to have him go on this journey comes to his partner after she dreams of the man, whom she knew during the Cultural Revolution.
There’s a sense, watching Kaili Blues, that all of these people have experienced some watershed moment that divided their lives into a before and after — and that they’re all on the wrong side of it, trying to eke out as untroubled an existence as possible. That’s surely why so many of them consider dreams unwelcome intruders: Rather than pleasant memories of their halcyon days, they’re troubling reminders that their lives are not all they once were, all they could have been.
Directed by Bi Gan
Opens May 20, Metrograph