Disorder Screening at Ann Arbor Film Fest This Weekend; Profile in LEAP Magazine

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Disorder (dir. Huang Weikai)

Huang Weikai’s riveting experimental documentary Disorder will screen Saturday, March 26 at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, one of the leading annual showcases for cutting edge film and video works from around the world. Details can be found at the Ann Arbor Film Festival site.

Benny Shaffer’s article “The Films of Huang Weikai: Towards an Urban Documentary Surreal” is a thorough exploration of Chinese independent filmmaker Huang Weikai’s oeuvre, published in the bilingual Chinese contemporary art magazine LEAP. The article gives insights to his two completed feature films, Floating (2005) and Disorder (2009), and one that is currently in production, Documentary.

Huang belongs to a close-knit community of independent filmmakers in contemporary China. Many people of this group have not received formal training in filmmaking but had related professions in art and education. They kick-started their own film projects out of a passion for the medium and enabled by the increasing accessibility of cheap and portable digital video cameras. And their general identity is opposed to that of the official media and of the commercial industry.

Huang and others make valuable contributions to the contemporary art and culture scene in China. This is because they “penetrate previously unexplored social spaces, documenting China during stages of monumental transformation in raw, spontaneous and provocative ways.” The way they go about doing so may sound simple; they only need to “transform the people with whom they engaged daily into the subjects of documentary films.” However, there are obstacles too.

For example, in his first documentary Floating, Huang found himself inevitably entangled with his subject. During the production he became both an observer and a participant of the events that unfolded in front of the camera. Shaffer describes the end sequence of the film:

[Huang] scrambles on foot to catch up with the fast-departing vehicle, documenting the scene as it spirals into pandemonium. The camera flails about wildly – we hear shouts, the sounds of the vehicle’s acceleration, and Huang calling for a cab. We then hear Huang, in the back seat of the cab speaking to the driver, urging him to speed up in pursuit of the armored vehicle as it quickly fades in the distance. After a harrowing drive through the city, the cab finally catches up, Huang leaps out and sprints toward the armored car to hand Yang Jiwei a handful of cash, saying: “You can post bail on the train. Take the money and bail yourself out.” The scene fades to black under the din of car horns.

By inserting himself in the middle of an action sequence, which is captured by his camera at the same time, the tension of the event is brought to life.

But as opposed to the realistic or journalistic aspect, the surreal part of the film, as Shaffer argues, comes because the film utilizes “a reverse-chronological editing structure” in which the protagonist’s past “return to haunt.” More important than the editing in bringing out the surreal are the venues where the subjects appear. They are the underpasses of the city, the dark corners, the dimly lit places, and all such transient and liminal space where migrants and drifters find themselves living and working.

Shaffer also makes a point about the ending credits of the film. He thinks that the tragic death of a migrant student, which is mentioned in the credits, reminds the audience of the severity of the floating population issue. “The social reality in which the subjects of Huang’s documentary live,” he write, “converges with that of the world beyond the contained narrative of the film.”

For Huang’s second film Disorder, Shaffer sees “questions about the positions of individuals in relation to urban space” being raised again. This time, Huang relies on fragments of multiple narratives to convey the idea of absurdity of modern Chinese cities. The film appears absurd not only because we are only being presented bits of information here and there but also because they show how alienated and dehumanized individuals are under the “abstract power of the city.” Incongruent elements, all of which being manifestations of “radical ruptures with the past” and “dramatic social transformation” of the present, are sutured together by Huang in “the ambient, diegetic sounds of the city,” creating a surreal effect.

Shaffer explains how this surrealism works,

In Disorder, we witness possession on multiple registers – the possession of individuals under the gaze of a DV camera, and the possession of both director and subject under the spell of the city. Through the reconfiguration and recontextualization of “found objects,” or found footage in the case of Huang Weikai’s project, he introduces jarring juxtapositions that subvert audience identification, often leaving the viewer bewildered, disoriented, powerless and confused. The film’s raw, grainy DV quality and its radical leaps from fragment to fragment are aesthetically mesmerizing. It distills a number of the qualities that Walter Benjamin locates in the practices of the surrealists, particularly the blurring of waking and dreaming states, and the interpenetration of image and language to yield a system of unstable meanings. As Benjamin writes in The Arcades Project, “And no face is surrealistic to the same degree as the true face of a city.” As Disorder exposes the underbelly of the city, making visible the absurd occurrences that are often subordinated to the realm of the invisible, his film offers a provocative portrait of an overwhelmingly absurd urban experience.

As for Huang’s latest project, Documentary, it is said to focus on his own people – DV hobbyists who videotape what is around them. The film will follow a few main characters and reveal their personalities and aspirations.

It seems that Huang is pushing himself to higher and higher grounds with each new project. By doing so, he has left a remarkable trace for others to follow. As Shaffer commends his work and achievement,

Huang Weikai’s documentary aesthetics, particularly those at work in Disorder, reveal new directions in a field of documentary filmmaking that has become saturated with dry character studies and self-indulgently long, roughly edited films. His surrealist digital collage points to how the fleeting realities pursued by documentary filmmakers have become unstable, absurd, and fragmented. His concern with urban space and the position of the individual in the city strikes a chord with larger social phenomena that must be confronted when we consider the state of China’s booming metropolitan centers. Furthermore, his solidarity with filmmakers working on the periphery gives his works an elevated sense of vitality, which materializes as a penetrating point of social intervention. We’ll just have to see what emerges on Huang’s next digital canvas with Documentary.

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