Zhao Dayong’s Sprawling Ghost Town


Rightly singled out during its NYFF run, Zhao Dayong’s loose, baggy monster of a documentary distills six years of footage from Zhiziluo, Yunnan Province—a Mao-era regional seat since abandoned to the elements and native Lisu and Nu minorities—into an three-hour triptych portrait-of-place. The first episode concerns the local Christian clergy, particularly 87-year-old leader “John the Elder” and his semi-estranged son, Yuehan. There is medieval scriptural quibbling over Biblical permission to play guitar and the closeness of genuine martyrdom, as John recollects his 20 years of forced labor after the mass imprisonment of him and his brethren in the crackdown ’50s (Dayong has a film about the Nigerian Christian community in Guangzhou in the works). Ghost Town‘s ungirdled midsection is a series of monologues from drunks and grannies—everyone else is trying to get out of town—before the movie hooks up with adolescent wild child, A Long, first seen in an immersive king-of-the-hill battle. I do not expect to soon find scenes to match Ghost Town‘s mountaintop funeral, the running along after a rowdy exorcism, or the scanning of faces at the town Christmas chorale. His back to prosperity, Dayong finds hallowed ground.