Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan’s background is in poetry, and he gently weaves his passion for literature into his debut feature, Kaili Blues, a soulful portrait of a widowed country doctor haunted by the past, as well as a depiction of China’s increasingly rapid pace of cultural and economic transformation. Its scenes echo one another like refrains, and understanding its characters becomes a kind of privilege, as their back stories and motivations become clear to us only after we’ve spent a certain amount of time with them.
The doctor, Chen Sheng (Yongzhong Chen), has opened a small country clinic in a house that he’s inherited from his mother. His relations with his brother, Crazy Face (Lixun Xie), remain strained, not least because of the brother’s envy. While bothered by Crazy Face’s lack of care for his small son, Weiwei (Feiyang Luo), Chen has to tend to his own troubles and reconstitute his life. First there are hints of Chen’s involvement in a crime, when his visit to a bar reveals that a local mobster’s son had been murdered and buried alive, and that the mobster took revenge for the crime. But it’s not until some time later, as Chen circles the village and travels to the nearby town of Dang Mai, chatting up locals and attempting to retrieve his nephew who’s been taken away, that the doctor’s involvement in the crime becomes clearer.
Bi trusts that viewers will put all this together, and certain effects, such as the camera’s lengthy ambling through streets unassociated with any particular character, give the film an unearthly and meandering quality. Kaili Blues doesn’t lack for exquisite visions, such as when Chen roams the lush hills surrounding his village on his motorcycle, or a girl takes a boat across a river to a concert, reciting facts about the Guizhou province. Other times, Bi lingers on shots that depict the usual drabness that we may associate with rapid industrialization: buildings constructed hastily and that appear unfinished, while others stand abandoned; slabs of concrete jungle awkwardly wedged into verdant terrain, amplifying peoples’ sense of alienation.
Throughout, people and places are haunted by tradition. In his office, Chen and an elderly nurse reminisce about old customs, such as the now-prohibited practice of burning paper money to honor the dead. There are ancestral grounds just outside the skyscrapers, and a rich ancestral culture, emphasizing continuity, clashes with the oft-amnesiac city life. At times, images and objects play double roles. Chen’s eerily lonesome voyage on a train is at once practical, as he must retrieve his nephew, and metaphorical, as the scene seems to take him back in time, to the mine where he used to work as a prisoner, though he could just as easily be revisiting it.
Much is uncertain: time markers, the exact nature of the doctor’s involvement in the mobster’s revenge plot, and the illness of Chen’s wife that caused her death (mentioned only in passing). But one thing is clear: For Bi, the past serves as a kind of Proustian madeleine, and he uses geographic markers and persons as a way of calling up past events. When the elderly nurse gives him a cassette with old romantic pop songs, which she wishes him to take to a lover she had known in her youth, Chen gives it instead to a married woman he meets at a concert—a woman who may be an attractive stranger, but could also possibly be his deceased wife. A constant doubling of persons creates a sense of time that feels cyclical rather than linear, and evokes myriad associations that are, indeed, lyrical rather than causal, or logical.
Kaili Blues is also a road movie, and the various legs of Chen’s journey bring him in contact with the actual inhabitants of the Guizhou province (Bi shot the film in his village, and used actual locals, including his family, as actors). From traditional instrument players to young rockers, the people the doctor encounters give a rich sense of the paradoxes of contemporary Chinese life. Here, new ways of life come as a trauma, which induces nostalgia for the “old ways.” Chen himself embodies this nostalgia, as a man for whom new faces and places constantly call up memories of the past. In this state of psychic peregrination, he seems to be moving toward a mythical underworld, where not only his loved ones, but also a worshipful China’s own ancestors, are ever-present. As Chen says at one point: “Memories pushed into the veins of my hands.” In Kaili Blues, memory is visceral, and a near-hallucination.