December 22, 2016 -- You get to know the cameraman almost as well as the characters in this film in which past, present, future as memories collide, merge and loop around in interlocking circles.
There is a 41-minute sequence in this film where there are no cuts as the main character, Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong) and others, move around the town of Dangmai in the spectacular province of Guizhou. Chen is there to find his nephew, Weiwei (Luo Feiyang), whose father, Crazy Face (Xie Lixun) has left in the care of an ex-gangster, Monk (Yang Zuohua).
As Chen moves through the town, the cameraman cuts through a narrow alley and picks up Chen again as he rides along a road. Following the cameraman's movements, you can see how these scenes are carefully choreographed, so the action starts just when the cameraman gets there, all in one continuous take. It is almost as if the cameraman becomes a character in the movie.
In another scene, two men walk through a building. The camera pans along the exterior of the building, picking up the two men as they come out the other end. In another scene, you can see people looking right at the cameraman, as if they had never seen one. You get to know the cameraman very well in this movie, though you never see him. You also get to know how first-time writer-director Bi Gan likes to set up his shots.
Chen's story is a sad one. He tells part of it to a hairdresser in Dangmai as she washes his hair. His tale involves revenge and a long stay in prison, during which time his wife and mother die. He doesn't want Weiwei to suffer the same fate he did as a child. Regret, loss and sorrow permeate his story.
This film takes us on a kind of road trip through the past and present in China, with some hints about the future. There are old traditions and new ideas about honoring the dead. I don't recall seeing a single rich person in this film. All the people seem to be living at a similar low income level. There are shocking tales of selling children and cutting off body parts.
The way this film is shot and the way this story is told is unique. The way it is edited and the way the camera is used in this film is especially foreign. It is as different from the usual Hollywood film as Christianity is different from Buddhism, and Buddhist notions of time have a lot to do with how this story is told, too. This film rates a B.
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