“You took a photo and stole my soul”
While the calling card for Gan Bi‘s feature debut 路边野餐 [Lù biān yě Cān] [Kaili Blues] is its magnificent 41-minute long take, that scene is but a movie within a movie. Its brilliance is in the way it takes his main character Chen Sheng (played by the writer/director’s uncle Yongzhong Chen) and us away from the tragic reality of death, disappointment, and frustration. For the first thirty minutes (before the title card even arrives), we’re simply getting to know this ex-con doctor and those with which he surrounds himself. Only after that do we understand Chen’s goal of finding his young nephew Weiwei (Feiyang Luo) before the boy’s father (his half-brother) Crazy Face (Lixun Xie) has an opportunity to sell him. But even that journey is merely a foundation.
Beyond plot and characters, the film is actually about what it is to experience pain and remember joy. Bi intersperses his own poetry throughout as lyrics to the score during quiet moments to amplify the emotion of introspection. The whole is a visual poem itself that flitters in and out of reality to set the stage and then let the unknown take over. How else can this misunderstood man from Kaili find himself in the mysterious town of Dangmai, a place seemingly populated by a younger version of his ex-wife and older version of his nephew? How else can the world deliver exactly what he wants despite reality proving it impossible courtesy of mankind’s mortality and greed? To tell Chen’s story linearly is impossible. Abstractly, however, it sings.
A synopsis that says the film concerns Chen’s search for Weiwei is misleading considering it’s such a small part of the whole. Just because that’s the most tangible through-line doesn’t make it all encompassing. So it can be a rather disorienting initially due to Weiwei being present during the entire first quarter of the runtime. Not only that, he seems happy and safe except for stories of “wild men covered in hair” that permeate our imaginations and his nightmares. Everything appears normal from Chen being a doctor who owns a clinic with an older partner (Daqing Zhao) to Crazy Face gambling while Weiwei stays home alone to the boy finding pleasure in his uncle’s attention as a result of his father’s absence. Bi eases us in.
Exposition arrives to explain where Chen has been, the strain of his and Crazy Face’s relationship, and the passing of their mother. We learn about the old watch salesman named Monk (Zhuohua Yang)—question his morality, hear about his connection to Chen, and ultimately wonder if our expectations are wrong. We listen to Zhao’s aging doctor talk about her dreams of an old friend and the fateful power they wield to manifest in waking life. And we watch the constant sadness of solitude Chen cannot shake either as a result of his present or a lingering product of his past. Rumors that he was abandoned add resonance to the thought Weiwei has too. Chen becomes protector, this evolution providing his dearest memories as though a gift of thanks.
It’s a lot of information in a brief time, but it’s delivered with care before finding a mirror in Dangmai to give it more meaning in hindsight. It’s here that Chen befriends a motorcyclist (Shixue Yu) struggling to make a living as a taxi with his old rundown bike while pining over the beautiful Yangyang (Yue Guo). We see this unrequited love as a metaphor for Chen’s desire for inclusion within a world that seems intent on pushing him away. He could have continued on to Zhen Yuan—where his nephew had gone—in the back of a pick-up, but he gets out to help Yue and subsequently finds himself in this realm too familiar to be mere coincidence. Being shot in one-take only amplifies its other-worldliness.
While he doesn’t forget his purpose or that of his possessions during this momentary diversion, he does consciously readjust both. This reprieve occurs almost out-of-time to the rest of the film, pushing his mission to the background as he confronts unfinished business within. It’s quite the technical feat, carefully choreographed to keep up with positions of moving vehicles through buildings and around town while also finding and leaving Chen throughout. You can’t see the cameraman, but you can sense his presence as the lens shakes when mounting and dismounting whatever it is that carries him around the scene. And this isn’t the only deliberate piece of cinematography either as there are many slow pans before and after to capture both Kaili and Zhen Yuan in their full glory.
In the end Kaili Blues cares little about actions as much as thoughts. For instance, Weiwei’s future is discussed in a brief conversation without our seeing whether the compromise is met. We ultimately don’t need this closure, though. The shared attitude towards Crazy Face and reverence held for his and Chen’s mother’s wishes are obvious enough to not need spelling out. So we assume plot details will be rectified as long as Chen can complete whatever sort of spirit walk he is on—or isn’t. Despite our recognizing what Dangmai is doing for him, we aren’t blind to the fact that it isn’t all in his head. This is a real town with real characters simply leaving an indelible mark on him that they can’t begin to imagine.
And kudos to Bi for doing it with a cast of amateurs (save Yu and Guo) recruited in large part by how they look. It goes back to the film’s visual poetry with Bi feeding off the natural demeanor of his actors and the authenticity of life experiences etched upon their faces. They each do their character justice, embodying their roles as though they’re merely playing a variation on the truth of who they are anyway. The result is a work that moves between documentary-style aesthetic and fantasy-tinged artifice, its world born from the contemplative nature of life rather than the in-motion chaos of it. The piece isn’t about Chen making up for his past or discovering his future. It’s about him accepting and forgiving who he is.
 Guo Yue and unidentified man in Bi Gan’s “Kaili Blues.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.
 Zhao Daqing in Bi Gan’s “Kaili Blues.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.
 Chen Yongzhong in Bi Gan’s “Kaili Blues.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.