Zhao Dayong achieves an extraordinary intimacy with his subjects, no doubt partly due to the amount of time he spent living in the town, but also through his approach to the filmmaking process. The nature of digital camera technology allowed him to work without a professional crew and instead recruit townspeople to help with the shoot. Zhao explains, “I had three people assisting me, all local villagers. For example, the truck driver who appears in part two of the film often helped me with sound recording. This way I was able to maintain close relationships with people in the village.”
At one level the townspeople of Zhiziluo are clearly victims of China’s new economic order, which has seen major coastal cities greatly enriched at the expense of rural areas. Zhao resists straightforward socio-economic analysis however, instead implying the aimless existence of the town’s inhabitants is symptomatic of a broader malaise. “Through the town I began to see and reflect on my own life”, Zhao says of his experiences shooting Ghost Town. “A process of self-reflection is, for me, the essence of filmmaking. As I was living with these people I came to realize just how uncertain their lives and fates were. The empty government buildings in which they live do not belong to them, and the fate of the place itself, of its architecture, was also in question. They were merely floating in the world, without any sense of safety and security, and their existential condition was basically no different from my own.”
Ghost Town doesn’t purport to provide solutions to the situations it depicts, but rather asks viewers to consider, along with the filmmaker and the town’s residents, how we find meaning in a world seemingly without philosophical or ideological bearings. As Zhao Dayong comments, “Film, like painting, is a method and technique of thought. All forms of creativity are rooted in this question – how to think and reflect.” The tragedy is that Chinese audiences are largely excluded from this process. Mainland television broadcasts only state-approved products and commercial cinemas are only permitted to screen licensed films, meaning documentaries like Ghost Town are rarely seen inside the People’s Republic. Fortunately for international audiences, the questions Ghost Town poses resonate far beyond China’s borders.
Read the full review at RealTime Arts.