Ghost Town: Getting Back to Roots

by Lu Chen

Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town is about alienation and distance, about aimless wanderers and broken hearts, yet it is shot with the tenderness of a root-seeking journey. In this three-hour documentary, the meditative rhythm parallels the pace of life depicted. The scale of screen time embodies the scale of lost history the film tries to capture through extraordinary visual sensitivity.

Life in Zhiziluo Village lingers between an irretrievably lost past and an unfulfilled promise of a future. In Part One, “Voices,” local Christian pastors, a father and a son, preach the doctrines learned from American missionaries back in the pre-revolutionary age, and parse the Old Testament for laws to follow in daily life. Their devotion and calmness, however, can hardly conceal the father’s traumatic memory of twenty years of prison for faith and the growing estrangement between the two generations.

In Part Two, “Recollections,” various people are forced to leave their homeland for unknown destinations: young men look for jobs in the city; young women are swindled or sold into marriages in afar provinces; a middle-aged divorcee faces the perspective of losing his homestead due to the government’s development plan. For them, life in the village will soon become mere recollections.

Part Three, “Innocence” portrays the seemingly carefree life of a 12-year old boy, abandoned by his family and catching wild birds for food. When he and other local youngsters perform a Lisu fire exorcism near the end of the film, we return to the age-old ghost worship mentioned by the elder pastor at the beginning. Life forms a circle. Progress and future, as embodied by the huge statue of Mao overlooking the town from a deserted former county hall, seem to have forsaken the land.

What distinguishes the film from other contemporary Chinese films about abandonment and oblivion is its scrupulous attention to details and the meaning and dignity it endows these details. In nightmarish case studies like Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures (2002) or apocalyptic fables like Ying Liang’s The Other Half (2006), homeland becomes wasteland. The characters, through their daily frustration and doomed attempts at escape or change, manifest the barren urban landscapes. Ghost Town, on the other hand, regularly punctuates the portraits of anguish and anger with calmly observed and compassionately recorded daily routine and toil. Through Zhao’s humanistic, observational camera, cooking, lighting the fire, feeding chicken, hard travels along the winding mountain roads, even animal slaughter on the streets, all acquire the same ritualistic sanctity as the Christian sermons and the Christmas banquet that are at the center of the village’s spiritual life, and the source of its hope.

Rituals and customs of remote, minority regions have long been a fascination of Chinese Han artists. Feature films like Tian Zhuangzhuang’s On the Hunting Ground (1985), set in Mongolia, and Horse Thief (1986), set in Tibet, and documentaries like Duan Jinchuan’s Tibet trilogy, all feature rituals as a basic form of existence for the local people. Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain (1990) also uses the protagonist’s trip along the border of Sichuan and Tibet and among minorities such as Qiang, Miao, and Yi peoples to embody “one man’s quest for inner peace and freedom” (Mabel Lee, in her introduction to the English translation of the novel). In his essay “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Post-socialism,” Chris Berry analyzes the paradoxical status of these regions and peoples as some kind of “others” within China, which enables the filmmakers to “express the sense of alienation and distance from their own culture felt by many educated Chinese amid the disillusionment of the post-Mao era.”

In a later essay “2005: The Power and Pain of the New Documentary Movement,” Lu Xinyu decodes the revived allegorical meaning of rural and minority regions in the digital-generation documentaries. In her example of Sun Yueling’s The Book of Winds (Feng Jing), the filmmaker follows a Tibetan Buddhist lama and his two students on a pilgrimage to the sacred Mount Kawakarpo, and treats their simple joy and devotion as a counterpoint to life in globalized civilization. Lu notes:

As the city and modernization no longer nourishes utopia, but only symbolizes its disillusionment, nostalgia (for the rural roots – as the Chinese term implies inherently) becomes a refusal of, and reflection on, modernization. The result is not only a continuation of the exploration in the 1980s, but also a homage to the dignity and value of the people living and suffering in today’s countryside.

Ghost Town is a highly aestheticized exploration of this tradition. Zhiziluo Village is also a special witness of the gravity of China’s urbanization and modernization. As Mr. Zhao mentioned in the Q&A after the NYFF screening, the village, originally occupied by the Lisu and Nu minorities, is an abandoned county seat from the Mao era. Now only the local peasants were left behind on the urbanized wasteland. The film contrasts the effortless beauty of the rural landscape with the dilapidated three-storied buildings and the desolate streets. Often kept at a distance, nature not only serves as a backdrop to human suffering and dignity at the foreground, but locates the people on the land.

Against this backdrop, the meticulously recorded religious and folk ceremonies and the daily rituals become substitutes for the lost roots and severed links to the soil, tradition and ancestry that would endow life with meaning. One of the most memorable rituals in the film is a rustic, religious funeral on top of the mountain. Starting with a striking image of a young man carrying a wooden cross climbing the mountain, the funeral merges a gospel chorus with the local tradition of chanting lamentation. When the ritual ends with a body buried and a new tomb sealed, the question about root and meaning is directed to us, the living.

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One Response to “Ghost Town: Getting Back to Roots”

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