Reviewed at the 2nd & final screening Sat. Sept. 16, 2006 at the Paramount 3 Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival (North American Premiere was on Thurs. Sept 14, 2006 at the Varsity 8 Theatre).
The film follows modern realist Chinese painter Liu Xiao-dong to locations in the Three Gorges Dam area where he paints a quintych (5 large connecting mural paintings) of 11 sturdy demolition workers and then to Bangkok, Thailand where the multitych painting is instead one of 11 beautiful young women.
The painter Liu comes across as an engaging personality who also does martial arts in his spare time ("the body must be kept strong in these difficult times"*) and is given to philosophical musings on life ("even in the midst of despair, the power of the human spirit is beautiful"*) and when a tragedy befalls one of his demolition worker subjects he undertakes a side journey to deliver gifts and the last ever taken photos of the man to his grieving family. The death is not captured on film but is alluded to by the director Jia Zhang-ke cutting in a couple of scenes from his feature film "Still Life" (Sanxia Haoren) which show a brick wall collapsing and then Han Sanming (an actor in "Still Life", but also one of the demolition workers being painted) following a burial shroud being carried out of the ruins.
When the scene shifts to Bangkok, Thailand the film follows painter Liu to a studio where he poses 11 young women in languorous poses around bedding and pillows. In a parallel situation to the Chinese workers, one of the young women also has a possible personal tragedy as her home village is shown in a TV broadcast as being flooded and the woman boards a train to find her family although the film does not follow her further. Bangkok painting scenes are inter-cut with an interview of Liu in a water taxi which is constantly getting humorously interrupted when traffic going in the opposite direction comes between his boat & the camera boat.
At various times it also struck me that director Jia was mimicking painter Liu's multi-person paintings by doing camera panoramas of groups of people such as a crowd of helmeted motorcycle riders. The film ends with a seemingly unrelated market scene of "the blind leading the blind" which may have been just too good of an image to pass up.
I probably got more out of this film having been lucky enough to have caught the last minute single screening of Venice Golden Lion winner "Still Life" earlier in the week. At least 2 of the actors in "Still Life" seem to have been discovered by director Jia Zhang-ke while filming this documentary - the above-mentioned dour faced Han Sanming and a young man with a blonde hair-dye job who ended up playing a sarcastic motorcycle taxi driver in the feature film. I think anyone who is interested in painting or simply in getting a look at life in the Three Gorges Dam area and in Bangkok Thailand will enjoy this film but it is possibly too slow paced for some viewers.
The director was a no-show for this screening and may not even have made it to Toronto after his Venice Festival wins (where "Dong" also won some doc awards).
*quotes are paraphrased and may not be exact.
China's greatest living filmmaker Jia Zhangke (Platform, The World) travels with acclaimed painter Liu Xiaodong from China to Thailand as they as they meet everyday workers in the throes of social turmoil. Liu Xiaodong is well-known for his monumental canvases, particularly those inspired by China's Three Gorges Dam project. In DONG, Jia Zhangke visits Liu on the banks of Fengjie, a city about to be swallowed up by the Yangtze River. The area is in the process of being "de-constructed" by armies of shirtless male workers who form the subject of Liu's paintings. Liu and Jia next travel to Bangkok, where Liu paints Thai sex workers languishing in brothels. The two sets of paintings are united in their subjects' shared sense of malaise in the face of the dehumanizing labor afforded them.
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