Rebecca Catching

Chinese Slow Cinema—
a New Filmic Rhythm and a Cinematic
Conscience—Exploring Notions of Time,
History, Memory, Absence and Allegory
in the Works of Chinese Auteurs
中国慢缓电影: 一种新的电影节奏和电影的社会良知, 探索中国性格导演对时间 ,历史, 记忆,席和寓言的概念

By Rebecca Catching, originally published in Yishu magazine in 2019.

With its themes of social justice, equality and focus on the human casualties of China’s economic boom, the slow cinema genre really has no place in a film market dominated by brainless American blockbusters, and “main melody” propaganda films. Yet somehow, like a withered tree in a dusty courtyard, it grows steadily each year, nourished by the unceasing desire of Chinese filmmakers to say something relevant about the times in which they live.

Unlike the action-packed, patriotic pablum served up by Chinese multiplexes, slow cinema requires a dedicated viewer with a taste for the unconventional. Critic Jonathan Romney describes it as film which “downplays event in favor of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality.”[i] Key auteurs include Béla Tarr (Hungary), Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy), Lav Diaz (Philippines), Kelly Reichardt (US) and Chantal Ackerman (France). The genre is known for its long takes and focus on mundane day-to-day activities, for instance, Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, dedicates many on-screen minutes to Jean’s daily tasks—making beds, doing laundry and chopping vegetables. Ackerman allows the viewer to watch these tasks in “real-time” so we come to understand the grinding boredom of the life of a French housewife. Desperate Housewives, this is not, yet somehow Ackerman paints a poignant portrait of true desperation.

Slow cinema has a “pronounced emphasis on the quietude and the everyday,” according to critic Mathew Flannagan. It uses “de-centered and understated modes of storytelling,”[ii] offering a kind of antidote to a “block-busted era” of simple, quickly digestible messages and images. As a recent graduate in the early 2000s, I remembered finding many Chinese arthouse films impenetrable, as they eschewed galloping narratives, providing pregnant pauses and meaningful glances in exchange. I thought there was something lost in translation, but perhaps it was that I was so well-versed in the vernacular of Hollywood, that I failed to pick up the subtle language of slow cinema, a language which had been developing since the 1980s in the Sinosphere. This sense of languorousness was first seen in the work of Taiwanese auteurs Hou Hsiao-Hsien—The Boys from Fengkuei (1983) City of Sadness (1989), Flowers of Shanghai, (1989)and Tsai Ming-liang, Vive L’Amour (1994), Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006). Tsai’s famous Walker (2012) series—takes the notion of “slowness” to heart depicting a monk walking through the streets of Hong Kong, his gait looking something like a slow-motion sports replay.

The action in Walker happens around the characters. The walking monk is eternally trapped within the present, while the world swirls madly around him. Film scholar, Song Hwee Kim has categorized his approach as the “temporal aesthetics of drifting.”

Though some criticize slow cinema as a form of directorial self-indulgence, (like an overly-long guitar solo), Hou explains that his use of slowness is in the service of creating a connection between the viewer and the characters. Says Hou:

. . . in some films, in order to show that the hero has been waiting for quite a time you’ll be shown five cigarette stubs in the ashtray. Normally, for a scene like that, I will film the character for as long as it takes him to smoke five cigarettes. That’s real-time, but it’s very difficult to handle because the audience will get bored. But I think I do this deliberately because I want them to feel that the hero is in a state of anxiety, waiting for something that may not happen, etc. I just don’t want them to know logically that the hero has been waiting for a long time: No, I also want them to feel this real waiting time.[iii]

Inspired by these Taiwanese masters, Mainland directors soon began to adopt the slow cinema approach of long takes and quietude, focusing in on marginalized characters. There is quite a lot of overlap between slow cinema and the work of Sixth-Generation directors who, owing to the lack of funding for elaborate films, naturally adopted a pared-down aesthetic, using long takes, ambient sound, hand-held cameras, and non-professional actors. Names such as Jia Zhangke, Platform (2000), Still Life (2006), The World (2004), Wang Bing, West of the Tracks (2003), Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), and Ta’ang (2016), Shengzhe Zhu, Another Year (2016), Zhao Liang Behemoth, (2015), Yang Zhengfan, Where Are You Going? (2016), Xu Xin, A Yangtze Landscape, (2017), and Karamay, (2011), Liu Jiayin, Oxhide I (2005) and Oxhide II (2009), and Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden, Tharlo (2015), and Jinpa (2018).

The aesthetics of slowness and the concept of time take on different approaches in the hands of different filmmakers. For instance, female director Shengze Zhu’s, Another Year continues in the vein of Jean Dielman, chronicling the lives of a migrant family—three generations living and eating in a dimly-lit room over the course of 14 months.

Zhu’s lens allows the viewer to experience in an unadulterated way, the feeling of living inside a concrete box, listening to the shouting of mothers, and the screeching of children, these mundane details of life ticking by as the months fall away like pages of a traditional Chinese calendar.

The formula of daily minutiae presented within a constrained framework also brought success to Liu Jiayin in her films Oxhide and Oxhide II, cataloging the glacial creep of time in her parent’s leatherwork shop, where she plays a fictional character and her parents play themselves. The first film features only three takes. Oxhide II places the camera on the family’s table which rotates on a 45-degree angle coming full circle within just nine shots. Explains Philippa Lovatt, “Within this framework, you are witness to the anxieties, disappointments, and affection that bind the family together.”[iv] Lovatt mentions that the small apartment represents a space of stasis amidst the rapid changes and demolitions which were occurring all over Beijing in the early 2000s. Not unlike Hou Hsiao-hsien’s ambulatory monk, the action happens elsewhere while the core subjects remain still. The film’s circular filming technique reflects the almost imperceptible rotation of the cosmos, and the Chinese lunar calendar—based around solar terms, seasons and natural occurrences—which have historically governed the pace of life in China and still govern the lives of those in rural areas, those not swept up in Western notions of linear time and the unidirectional march of progress.

Slow cinema seeks to deeply investigate these small and mundane worlds, immersing the viewer into the diegetic space of the film—i.e. the world created by the filmmaker. “In slow cinema, soundscapes composed of location sound recordings, field sound recordings, and an absence (or minimal use of musical score) . . . [enable] a sense of ‘connectedness’. . . .,” [v] writes Lovatt who describes the use of sound in the films of Jia Zhangke and others as a “dense auditory field”:

Shifts in pitch and timbre draw in the spectator more deeply, submerging us into the diegetic world of the film, that is at times populated by the heavy drone of insect life, the violent sway of leaves in the trees or the reverberation of traffic noise. At other times, however, the films grant a sense of intimacy (sometimes uncomfortably so) so very localized sounds appear too near or strangely audible considering their point of origin within the visual field. . . . in slow cinema . . . the auditory dimension loses “meaning” and becomes “feeling,” experienced through the body of the spectator.[vi]

Rather than distracting the viewer with ostentatious sound design, creating a fully-immersive spectacle, the movement uses sound in the manner of cinema verité to create a faithful documentation of the lives of the characters. Some have described it as a conscious reaction against the consumerist, hallucinatory powers of Hollywood filmmaking in the same way that slow food is a reaction to industrial food. [vii]

Scholar Nadin Mai, the creator of the excellent The Arts of Slow Cinema blog, sees a link between this resistance to capitalist modes of filmmaking and the content of the films which tend to focus on nothing in particular. I.e. there is nothing in the shots that commands the viewer’s attention, no narrative leading the viewer along, like a fish on a hook. These are not profitable or easy films and the average viewer may find them as entertaining as watching paint dry. “We struggle seeing this nothingness because we have gotten used to the capitalist idea that nothing(ness) means non-profitability,” writes Mai, “. . . Nothingness often only plays a role when we are exhausted from the capitalist hamster wheel and need to slow down. Then people flock to meditation where they often learn that nothingness is profitable after all, just perhaps not in monetary value.” She describes slow cinema as an “invitation from directors into their own unique filmic worlds, “asking us to explore it [these worlds] our own way.”[viii] Rather than a way which is prescribed by the filmmaker. This connection between “somethingness” and productivity, between nothingness and obsolescence, is borne out through the characters of the films, many of whom are non-productive cast-offs, byproducts of dysfunctional economic and social systems.

For instance, in Wang Bing’s heart-wrenching documentary Three Sisters, tells the story of three young girls living in a mountain village in Yunnan (all under the age of eight) who are left to fend for themselves while their father is working a far-away city. The roles of the mother and father are constructed as s kind of absence, writes Mai—who makes the comparison to Chinese traditional ink painting, where negative space is used to construct positive space—the lack of parental figures helping to form the characters of the children, highlighting their strength against adversity. The sense of “negative space” is also quite present in the framing of the film. We see many shots where the girls are silhouetted against wide-open skies, standing in empty fields, literally and figuratively alone in the world.

This concept of “presence and absence” writes Mai also pertains to the role of the filmmaker. The children rarely look into the camera in the film—the camera casting a cold impersonal gaze on their plight writes Mai:

“The film is an intimate portrait without the children breaking the famous 4th wall. But Wang Bing is present. We can see the microphone in one shot; we can hear him breathing while climbing a mountain to reach the bus; we hear the bus driver and the girls’ father speaking about the director in front of the camera. I found that he had a ghostly presence.”[ix]

When the father returns, he takes two sisters with him to the city, while one remains behind with her grandfather in the emptied-out village. As the film progresses, she slowly disappears into herself, reflecting the kind of psychological withdrawal that is common in children of this “left-behind” generation.

The idea of being left behind is common to many slow cinema films in China, something that is played out through both physical movement and the situations of the characters. For instance, Xu Xin’s Yangtze River Landscape, takes the premise of a river voyage to explore notions of time and economic and social regression. The river is, of course, a common metaphor for time, yet as Xu’s lens travels backwards up the river from Shanghai to Yichang (Sichuan), he uncovers many who are left behind, living in conditions which look as if they have changed little since 1949. Xu Xin conceived of the film as a scroll painting, and we can see a strong parallel in the Song-Dynasty scroll painting, “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” which features bustling scenes along the banks of the river, bridges, pagodas, and palaces—all illustrating the triumphant power of the Song Empire. Xu Xin’s view of the Yangtze is decidedly less prosperous, featuring sober vignettes of those living along its banks: a mentally-ill homeless man—hair matted into dreadlocks feasting upon garbage—another man whose hands had been mangled by a fishing net, a firewood seller who appears to be deaf and a homeless man living under a highway overpass with a herd of stray dogs as his only companions. Xu Xin’s characters are like pieces of flotsam left upon the banks—the wreckage of the post-socialist economy. 

As the boat sails through the locks at the Three Gorges Dam, the water does literally lift the boat (a visual reference to the comforting fallacy that rising tides improve the fortunes of all citizens), but this is juxtaposed against another scene of a lone boat operator, docked in the dam reservoir banging a metal pole on the deck of his boat in frustration, finally launching it into the water in a fit of rage. At one point during the voyage, Xu Xin stops to point out a settlement on the banks of the river, New Wushan City, remarking that the Old Wushan lies beneath the waves after the flooding of the Three Gorges—a complete erasure of history, in order to facilitate a clean and orderly future.

Xu Xin’s work is shot through with contrasts which speak to the failures of modernity, notions of prosperity/poverty, progress/stagnancy, movement/stillness, future/past, life/death, and absence and presence.  Much of this is accomplished through movement and juxtaposition. For instance, we see the cars zooming overhead while an old man putters around beneath the overpass. In another scene, his stray dog sits regally on an old chair, the glittering skyline of Chongqing blinking its promise of prosperity behind him. As with Oxhide, this concept of modern time is contrasted, by the movement of modern vehicles, cars, and boats, juxtaposed with the stasis characterized by the individuals. Living alone, with little contact with others—or in the case of the homeless man, living in his own mental universe—these characters seem to have no real relationship to time, except for the fact their surroundings—the wreckage of the Socialist Era—place them in the temporal framework of the 1950s, 60s or 70s.

Scholar Cecília Mello sees slow cinema as a kind of counter-strategy against Communist narratives of progress:

“Slowing down cinema through greater shot lengths, the use of the long take, and by embracing a delayed narrative style, one that would disrupt Communism’s grand narrative of progress of Social Realist Chinese films, would function, on one level, as an aesthetic response to the violence of speediness. This superimposition of temporalities which defines contemporary China, can also be understood as a cultural trace . . .  the coexistence of past and present, slowness and fastness exist despite radical ruptures seen in China in the 20th Century, a country that from the proclamation of the Republic in 1911 to the Communist Revolution in 1949, from the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), to the Era of Reforms (1978-92), has repeatedly tried to wipe away the past and reset the counter of history.[x]

Wang Bing, a slow cinema auteur who has recently been getting quite a bit of attention in Europe, has mined these notions of “progress” not only in Three Sisters, but in a number of his works. West of the Tracks—a documentary about rail workers—responds to Mello’s theories in a number of ways. First, it centers around the railroad, representing early modern-notions of time as linear, progressing from backwardness to technological sophistication, but also it focuses on the demise of a former era, thus looking back at the industrial railyards of Tie Xi Qu in Shenyang, and not forward at what will come to replace them. In keeping with this, the trains in Wang Bing’s three-part film are not flying gloriously through the countryside, and into the future, but rather shunting back and forth between factories. Like the characters in the film (and in Xu Xin’s as well), the trains are going nowhere. They have no destination.

“Unlike early modernism, which was more interested in speed, velocity, and acceleration,” writes scholar Giuliana Bruno, “the late modernism that emerged in the postwar period conceived of modernity as inhabiting different, extended temporal zones, and set out to explore this new shape of modern times. Broadening, expanding, fragmenting, layering, exploring, rethinking time marked a new international Filmic movement.[xi]

There is plenty of this late-modernist temporal layering in West of the Rails, for instance, in one scene we see an adolescent boy (Du Yang), the son of the main character (One-eyed Du), peering through a batch of photos from his childhood. He points out an image of his estranged mother posed coquettishly in the grass. Tears slide down his face as he remembers the times when the family was together as a unit. The clock on the wall chimes a cheerful, but dated communist ditty, thus connecting the feeling of promise of the young Du family with feeling the promise which engulfed the heady days of the beginning of the socialist experiment in the 1950s and early 60s.

Wang acts like a signalman, flipping the switch on these utopic narratives, his train rolling off on a branch line or spur, diverging from the straight track of official history. He has no time for the heroic antics of Lei Feng, rather, he takes it as his mission to catalogue the “absent,” those who will never be lionized or made into semi-fictionalized martyrs. Wang Bing’s characters reside within the realm of the “yin” or shadows, “stories that have officially never happened,” writes Nadin Mai, “He films the flipside of the country’s enormous boom: the extreme poverty of parts of the population, the exploitation of the workforce in absolute disregard of their health and safety, the rehousing of people against their will, the frank neglect of everyone who does not belong to the top 1%.”[xii]

In West of the Tracks, he catalogues (in almost painful detail) the transition in northeast China from its glorious history of heavy industry to a future whereby polluting factories must make way for new urban real estate projects. Mai describes his film as a “cinematic document,” which records the demolition of the Tiexi Qu industrial railyards in Shenyang. Like the scavengers who pulled bricks and timber from the villages doomed by the Three Gorges Dam, the marginalized people of Tiexi Qu scrounge a living from what’s left of this once-prosperous industrial zone. “What remains are groups of temporary workers, here and there. “Specters,” writes Mai, “Just like the run-down, half-empty, half-demolished parts of the factories. Wang Bing’s film is a film about absence-in-the-making. Until the end of the 1990s, over 50,000 people had been employed there. Tiexi is both a workplace and living space. Both are disappearing in front of our eyes, and so are the people.”[xiii]

The sense of shadow or yin is highlighted by the fact that the film is largely filmed in the dark—the workers and scavengers are like deep-sea creatures trying to employ meagre resources to eke out a living in the gloom. The film’s protagonist, One-eyed Du, is at once seen and not seen, by officials. His connections allow him to live within the railyards in order to forage for materials, yet he lives within a grey zone of legality and illegality, tolerated because of his knowledge of the crooked dealings within the railyards. But even as One-eyed Du is getting kicked out of his house by the railyard officials, he feels the need to assert his importance, “On this railway, I am somebody. I’ve got connections here. I’ve worked security. I’ve got dirt on everyone here. Even the cops. I’ve got files and records. Now they’ve got a file on me.”

In this statement, we see some strong parallels to the role of Wang Bing as a filmmaker, working out of the official spotlight, he gives himself the freedom to create his own archives, records or “dangan” 档案 of society a kind of filmic sousveillance. This comes as a kind of act of resistance in reference to the “dangan” system, which weaponizes information by keeping detailed records on every citizen pertaining to their work and academic performance, attitudes, political affiliations, criminal convictions and administrative penalties—dossiers which follow individuals throughout their lives as part of bureaucratic control.

This idea of creating alternative filmic histories comes alive in the films of arthouse icon Jia Zhangke. (Yes I know, many of you were wondering when I would finally get around to talking about him. Thank you for your patience.) Jia, who is without contest the most interesting, talented and provocative directors of the Sixth Generation, explores the concept of the public inscription of history (i.e. the ancient tradition of writing history upon stone stelae), the destruction of historical markers and the layering of historical signs. Mello describes his backdrops as “ledgers” for recording memories. For instance, in his earlier films Xiao Wu, The World, and Still Life:

Through various walls, from the vernacular courtyard residences of northern China, the half green walls of the public buildings and the ruins of Feng Jie in the Three Gorges[xiv], Jia promotes slow architectural journeys through mnemonic walls, marked by inscriptions of superimposed temporalities [i.e. traces of different times]. These walls carry marks of the subjective memory of those who have lived within them.[xv]

She mentions the use of the character “chai” 拆 meaning “demolition,” “both seen in Fenyang [Jia’s hometown] and Fengjie yet as a sign, an index of their imminent destruction.”[xvi] Jia’s films seem to glorify the “xiao difang” 小地方, the small and insignificant towns, second and third-tier cities on the periphery of China’s economic boom—placing them for once in the spotlight—bringing the periphery to the center, the common people to the stage—in a statement against the persistent prejudice and snobbery that dogs these second-tier cities and their residents who are treated as second-class citizens. (For an interesting insight into Jia and his relationship with Fenyang see A Guy from Fenyang by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles). [xvii]

Jia’s landscapes, though contemporary when they were filmed, project an image of China which is 30 years old—in this they present a kind of rallying cry against forgetting and a reminder to China’s urban elite of the country’s patchwork pattern of growth. Scholar Yomi Braester writes about urban effacement of history, and willful amnesia in the context of I Wish I Knew—which was commissioned for the World’s Fair in Shanghai almost a decade ago. The Shanghai World Expo was part of an attempt to launch an image of the city as a modern and worldly tech-savvy metropolis—dubbed ad nauseam by the Western media as a “coming out party.” Jia is no party animal. Rather he prefers to hang out at the fringes of this party and ask questions about the motives behind the Potemkinesqe re-branding of the city. Writes Braester:

Amid the celebratory pomp of Shanghai Expo 2010, Jia sounds a sobering note. As China hurtles forward without looking back and the planners of the Expo avert their eyes from the detritus of history, Jia’s camera lingers on the rubble of demolition and turns around for double-takes. In contrast to the urgency to create a new image for Shanghai, Jia offers a cinema that looks back. The figure of history returns through cinema in the form of a spectral apparition wandering among the ruins.[xviii]

The film is not a straight documentary but rather a layering of different kinds of filmic materials that pertain to the memories of individuals and Chinese film history. The film like the walls in Jia’s other works seems to bear traces of histories past. Scholar Zheng Aili describes it as a palimpsest—as a kind of filmic document of a time which contains traces of earlier periods:

I Wish I Knew (Hai Shang Chuan Qi, 2010) samples the complex story of Shanghai. Interviews, location sequences, archival stills, intertitles, scripted passages, and filmic intertexts are assembled to explore the historical palimpsests of its culture as well as the current social ferment and commercial vigor of this metropolis.” [xix]

The film layers a number of different time periods with footage of the Bund—the former trading houses symbolic of Shanghai’s 19th-century semi-colonialism and the Opium War; Pudong—Shanghai’s CBD served as a beacon to foreign capital in the 90s[xx]. The film opens with the classic postcard of Shanghai, seniors doing fan dances on the Bund against the backdrop of the Pudong skyline. This temporal incongruity continues with interviews with characters speaking to the golden age, the daughter of notorious gangster, Du Yuesheng; those who fled to Taiwan and Hong Kong after 1949, but then zooms into the present, with footage of slums destined for demolition, or workers dancing on the Expo construction site.

Zheng Aili writes that the film is structured as a casual stroll through history with Zhao Tao (Jia’s wife who has played Jia’s leading lady in many films) cast as the “flaneuse.” Unlike official histories, this history as told by the flaneuse is meandering, jumping back and forth in time. In one scene, Zhao Tao is seated in a theatre watching the classic film Two Stage Sisters (1964)—a moralistic tale set in 1935 about two Shaoxing opera singers who take different paths—one of fame and materialism and one of revolutionary idealism. [xxi] Jia could have merely interspliced a clip of this film, but he includes the Zhao Tao, as the “witness” of a certain version of constructed history in the Stage Sisters. The reference to us, the viewer, in this dynamic of viewing, meaning-making, and history-construction is certainly not missed. His inclusion of Stage Sisters, also seems almost like a sly jest, as if he is asking, “look at where all this idealism has lead us?”

In fact, Jia’s whole oeuvre is interested in this cyclical notion of history and includes references to film and literature from previous eras, to strengthen this circular theme. This is often structured as a film within a film, a play within a film, or in this case a play within a film, within a film. Using literary or theatrical allegory is a well-worn technique used in China to comment on the present, as we see with a more recent film, A Touch of Sin, which employs obvious references to the classic The Water Margin to pinpoint the issue of political corruption. Though A Touch of Sin, has been described as more of a “genre film” with its faster pacing, it nonetheless provides a good case study for the use of “performance” in Jia Zhangke’s work, a trend which runs throughout many of his slower films.

Performance first appears in A Touch of Sin in the form of a farcical homecoming celebration for an arrogant Shanxi coal boss. Mineworker Da Hai, is approached by his coworkers who call out from the window of a bus for him to jump on board. Everyone is promised a bag of flour in exchange for their wholehearted support in this airport welcome wagon. A community drumming troupe is assembled on the tarmac and little girls proffer bouquets of flowers to the coal boss, but Da Hai goes off script, executing his own performance in a bold confrontation with the boss about how the mine’s revenues have not been returned to the village coffers as agreed. The crowd of celebrants shuffles away and the boss’s henchmen, Xiao Bai, strikes Da Hai repeatedly in the head with a shovel, while another henchman stands in front of the plane with a bouquet of flowers in his hands, saying “Xiao Bai, are you playing golf?”—a third performance.

Leaving the hospital Da Hai encounters a man in the crowd who calls out his name “Lao Gao,” a diminutive for “Mr. Golf,” his new nickname. As he walks further into the crowd another person cries out “Mr. Golf” and all of the spectators turn to watch him. The camera turns to a stage where an opera troupe has assembled. With great flourish, the opera performer proclaims: “Lin Chong unsheathed my sword in anger and killed two of Gao Qiu’s henchmen. Fortunately for me, Officer Chai gave me a document that enabled me to come to Mount Liang.”[xxii] This scene from the Beijing Opera, Lin Chong Flees at Night, which references the protagonist of the Chinese classic The Water Margin, Lin Chong.

Set in the Song Dynasty, The Water Margin focuses on the abuse of power by officials and the unjust punishment of the righteous—themes which have obvious parallels to the situation in the village. After being inspired by the themes of the opera, Da Hai then returns home to fetch a hunting rifle, wrapping it in a blanket printed the bright-orange image of a tiger—the slaying of the tiger by the character Wu Song is one of the iconic scenes of The Water Margin. Da Hai exacts justice, killing the coal boss, village chief, and mine accountant—finishing them off in short order—his final performance of the film.

In this Jia’s hands, Da Hai is cast a modern-day “wuxia”[xxiii] hero, as if he has stepped out of the pages of The Water Margin, an outlaw of the marsh or Chinese Robin Hood. But despite their connection to fiction, the four stories which make up A Touch of Sin, are all in fact sourced from actual news events that occurred in China in the 2000s. The second story tells of the case of Deng Yujiao, a spa receptionist who murdered a government official during an attempted rape. The Deng Yujiao storyline also employs literary references—an allusion to the Ming Dynasty story, of A Trial of Su San, again performed by an itinerant opera troupe, telling the story of a young courtesan who falls in love with a scholar but is unjustly framed for murder. Finally, a third storyline explores the fate of a migrant worker, who after working in an exploitative factory, runs away to a different town in search of work and finds himself working as a host at a KTV brothel. The brothel, the very-aptly-named, “Golden Era” features different thematic rooms including one designed as a 60s-era train car. A client enters the train car and is approached by a young prostitute playing the role of conductor. He asks her where the train is headed and when she doesn’t know, he chastises her saying, “You young people. You have no idea where you are going.”

There are, of course, the strong connotations about modernist notions as moving unidirectionally in one direction, a narrative of utopian progress moving towards the future, moving from chaos to order, but this concept does not jibe with the life of the young migrant workers who move from chaos to more chaos. There is no Great Helmsman to guide these characters through the choppy post-socialist reality. This kind of film, focusing on the experience of the individual, is part of a greater transition in Chinese film history, which began with the scar dramas of the Fourth Generation, a rejection of the ideologically-driven films of the Communist Era writes Lovatt:

Luke Robinson describes the recent shift in China’s new documentary movement away from films recorded in public spaces, that focus on “public topics” (gonggong huati) such as the nation, history, ethnicity, or the state towards ‘what is increasingly described this, the ‘siren’, the “private” documentary (Robinson, 2010 : 177).[xxiv]

The appeal of these very relevant “siren” stories is obvious, given the wealth of “gonggong” main melody films. Chinese cinema itself embodies these late-modern notions of simultaneously-existing temporal frameworks, the main melody films existing alongside slow cinema, arthouse and commercial offerings which are beginning to look more and more like Hollywood, but despite the growing cinephilia, these films are under constant threat. Jia’s A Touch of Sin was denied release in China despite winning best screenplay at Cannes and being chosen as one of the 25 most important films of the 21st Century by the New York Times. Many are unable to pass censorship and do not receive the “dragon seal” which allows them to be shown in mainland cinemas or obtain an exit visa to be shown abroad. Sadly, we cannot predict any utopic narratives for slow cinema; it’s future being as messy and chaotic as the lives of those it seeks to portray.

[i] Dargis, Manhola, “‘Jeanne Dielman’: Where the Devil’s in the Domestic Details: Chantal Akerman’s film gives the viewer three days with a disturbing companion,” The New York Times, August 20, 2015, (Last accessed July 29, 2019,

[ii] Barradas Jorge, Nuna and de Luca, Tiago “INTRODUCTION: FROM SLOW CINEMA TO SLOW CINEMAS, Slow Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) p. 1, (last accessed July 29, 2019, )

[iii] Lim, Son Hwee, “Temporal Aesthetics of Drifting: Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness” in eds. Barradas Jorge, Nuna, and de Luca, Tiago, Slow Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) p. 91, (last accessed July 29, 2019,

[iv] Lovatt Philippa, “‘Slow Sounds’: Duration, Audition, and Labour in Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide and Oxhide II,”eds. Barradas Jorge, Nuna, and de Luca, Tiago, Slow Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) p. 192, (last accessed July 29, 2019,

[v] ibid

[vi] ibid

[vii] Thomas Elsaesser, “Stop/Motion in Eivind Rossaak,” (ed). Between Stillness and Motion: Film, Photography, Algorithm, p117. 2011

[viii] Mai, Nadin, “Nothing,”, August 28, 2017, (last accessed July 30, 2019,

[ix] Mai, Nadin, “Three Sisters – Wang Bing (2012),”, December 11, 2017, (last accessed July 30, 2019,

[x] Mello, Cecília, “If Walls Could Speak: From Slowness to Stillness in the Cinema of Jia Zhangke,” (eds.) Barradas Jorge, Nuna and de Luca, Tiago, Slow Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), p. 138-139, (last accessed July 29, 2019,

[xi] Bruno, Guiliana, Architecture and the Moving Image: A Haptic Journey from Pre to Post-Cinema, cited in Mello, Cecília, “If Walls Could Speak: From Slowness to Stillness in the Cinema of Jia Zhangke,” (eds.) Barradas Jorge, Nuna, and de Luca, Tiago, Slow Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) p. 139, (last accessed July 29, 2019,

[xii] Mai, Nadin, “Wang Bing: West of the Tracks,, May 16, 2017, (last accessed July 30, 2019,

[xiii] Mai, Nadin, “Wang Bing: West of the Tracks,, May 16, 2017, (last accessed July 30, 2019,

[xiv] These two-tone mint green and white interiors, where the bottom half of the wall is painted green and the other half is painted white are very much reminiscent of Communist-era China.

[xv] Mello, Cecília, “If Walls Could Speak: From Slowness to Stillness in the Cinema of Jia Zhangke,” (eds.) Barradas Jorge, Nuna, and de Luca, Tiago, Slow Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) p. 138-140, (last accessed July 29, 2019,

[xvi] Mello, Cecília, “If Walls Could Speak: From Slowness to Stillness in the Cinema of Jia Zhangke,” (eds.) Barradas Jorge, Nuna, and de Luca, Tiago, Slow Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) p. 138-140, (last accessed July 29, 2019,

[xvii] Other directors such as Lam Can-Zhao, director of The Dog, have spoken out on the importance of representing and documenting the dark side of Chinese cities. Remarking on the criticism of his decrepit depictions of Guangzhou in the film he said, “Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou are only a mirage of China. What hides behind prosperity is poverty: sterile land, poor people, and poor souls. I live in Guangzhou. I saw all of these things and they shouldn’t be covered up, blocked out by high buildings and big mansions.” 

[xviii] Braester, Yomi. “The Spectral Return of Cinema: Globalization and Cinephilia in Contemporary Chinese Film.” Cinema Journal 55, no. 1 (2015): 29-51, (last accessed, July 31, 2019,

[xix] Zheng Aili, “The Realism of Compositional Documentary: Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew, Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 48, No. 1 (2013), pp. 88-108 (last accessed July 31, 2019,

[xx] Greenspan, Anna, Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 47

[xxi] Zheng Aili, “The Realism of Compositional Documentary: Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew,” Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 48, No. 1 (2013), pp. 88-108 (last accessed July 31, 2019,

[xxii]Actual Lyrics from Linchong Flees by Night: 俺,林冲。一时愤怒,持剑杀死高俅奸细二人。官府严拿甚紧,多蒙柴大官人,与俺书信一封,荐往梁山。日间不敢走路,只得黑夜而行。

[xxiii]Wuxia” is a genre of martial arts fiction in China, which has impacted other forms of culture such as comics, opera, and film. Wuxia warriors tended to be from lower classes but strove to seek justice for those unfairly wronged, following a code of honor, benevolence, righteousness, courage, bravery, loyalty, etc.

[xxiv] Lovatt Philippa, “‘Slow Sounds’: Duration, Audition, and Labour in Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide and Oxhide II,”(eds.) Barradas Jorge, Nuna, and de Luca, Tiago, Slow Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) p. 194, (last accessed July 29, 2019,