Forgoing Jia Zhang-ke’s blend of fiction and nonfiction but nonetheless tackling his recurring theme of Chinese modernization and its effects on the country’s relationship to its history, Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town paints a haunting trifurcated portrait of people set adrift by forced large-scale economic and cultural transformations. In the southwest China village of Zhiziluo, a statue of Mao pointing his figure toward the horizon looms large over abandoned buildings, largely deserted streets, and directionless men and women, the communist leader’s effigy a reminder of a promised future unfulfilled. Dividing his film evenly into three sections whose focal points range from middle age (“Voices”) to early adulthood (“Recollections”) to childhood (“Innocence”), Dayong creates a regressive chronology in tune with his locale, a ramshackle place of neglect and ruin that will soon cede existence thanks to the government’s rural development plans.
Just as the government wants to physically separate Zhiziluo citizens from their homes, native soil, and ancestry, Ghost Town finds in each of its segments individuals cut off from their heritage: a Christian pastor is both estranged from his father and laments the newer generations’ increasing disinterest in the church founded a century earlier by missionaries; a young couple is torn apart by the man’s economically motivated decision to relocate to the city, and an alcoholic finds himself lost without the wife and child who no longer want him; and a 12-year-old boy lives on the streets after having been abandoned by his family. Exuding intense humanism not via grand gestures but simply diligent, unvarnished attentiveness, the director conveys a sense of these people as aimless wanderers, tragically detached from those past roots that might give their lives meaning, purpose, and direction.
Full of prolonged, unbroken shots and scenes punctuated by piercing cutaways to the empty landscape, Dayong’s direction exudes compassionate intimacy with regard to both individuals and spaces. And his repeated motif, of figures walking or driving off into the distance as the screen slowly transitions to black, deftly imparts the film’s overriding expression of the crumbling community’s transition into a dark, unknowable tomorrow. With acute clear-sightedness, Ghost Town presents its subjects in contemplative interviews and carrying out day-to-day drudgery, capturing essential truths about damaged hearts in the cracked-mirror sight of the pastor playing a violin, about hope in the sounds of a Christmas chorus singing in harmony, and about the contentious schism between the present and the past in the blurry, fire-lit images of mountain spirits-imploring people running through the nighttime streets chanting, “Drive away the ghosts.”