Swimming in the Surreal: Notes from a Disorderly Screening of Disorder

By Kevin B. Lee

For one night, "Disorder" could not be contained to the screen

MoMA Documentary Fortnight is now over, and we at dGenerate headquarters in New York have more or less recovered from a week of intense activity, screening four of our new films as part of the series. Even with the edgy, challenging nature of the film, all of the screenings were well-attended and received. After both screenings of Fortune Teller, I talked with several audience members who were clearly moved after witnessing people living on the fringes of Chinese society, as well as director Xu Tong’s dedication in filming them. Viewers were equally amazed by the obsessive commitment of Li Ning in capturing the most intimate aspects of his life and creative struggles for five long, hard years in Tape. Even the six-hour marathon screening of Karamay left a couple dozen people eager to ask questions for director Xu Xin afterwards; though what they had to say weren’t so much questions as long, deeply emotional expressions in response to his film. We may have more to share about this in a later post.

But the screenings that took the cake were the two sold-out shows of Disorder, with director Huang Weikai in attendance. For some reason, there was a huge demand to see widespread social dysfunction in urban China, depicted in found footage video. For the second screening, Huang was joined by Xu Xin and independent film producer and programmer Zhu Rikun for an informative discussion, moderated by Professor Zhen Zhang of NYU. But it’s safe to say that the first screening was the more eventful. Take it from this review of the screening found on Mubi.com:

Once again, dGenerate films was able to deliver a better than 3D experience. They served dumplings for the screening of Oxhide II, and with Disorder, it proved to be even more of an immersive experience. And I’m not being sarky about the following, I really had a blast during the screening…

The review goes on to report on what happened: the print of the film turned out to be a poor transfer (leading yours truly to rush to the office to find a replacement copy). To bide time, Director Huang and Professor Zhang held the Q&A session before the screening, which led to some interesting questions by audience members speculating on what they were about to see.

When a more acceptable print could not be found, we proceeded to go with the same print, only to notice further that the subtitles were missing. This led to a most extraordinary development, as Professor Zhang volunteered to translate the film live into English. Except that the film was in Cantonese, which was unfamiliar to Professor Zhang. So Huang Weikai heroically offered to live translate the film from Chinese to Mandarin (he is not fluent in English), and Professor Zhang handled the Mandarin to English leg. It was, to say, the least, surreal. What the audience lost in viewing the film as intended, they gained in a totally unique live performance variation, recalling how in the 1920s some films were screened in the silent era with live translation (a connection enhanced by the film’s black and white images).

The Mubi user review found that the exceptional circumstances added new dimensions to the experience:

When I saw the film for the first time, I was reacting straight from the gut. This second viewing, special circumstances notwithstanding, the film has lost none of its power. It is equally funny and distressing at times, just watching a film that depicted the absurdities of life in such an absurd manner elevated the viewing experience. Just hearing Huang Weikei relay the dialogue to the translator, he clearly knew his film by heart, and how much dedication it took him to edit all of the 1000 plus hours he acquired to something a little under an hour.

Later on, Huang was able to laugh about the event, saying that audiences got to experience two “Disorders” for the price of one. If something like this was going to happen, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate film – as if all the disorder and absurdity depicted on screen had exploded into the theater in real time. For me, the screening had the stuff of legend, like when Salvador Dali angrily knocked over the projector following the premiere of Joseph Cornell’s surrealist found-footage masterpiece Rose Hobart and accused Cornell of stealing his dreams. That screening also happened at MoMA, around 75 years ago. So in this way, it’s nice to think that this event falls into a tradition of strange, indelible cinematic experiences at one of New York’s pre-eminent venues.

Visit our events calendar to see upcoming screenings of Disorder and other films.

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