Perhaps the most famous classical Chinese painting is the 12th century masterpiece Along the River During the Qingming Festival. It’s a horizontal scroll, much copied and embellished over the centuries. In its most celebrated reproduction, it runs to 37 feet long by one foot wide, depicting over 4,000 human figures plus assorted animals, vehicles, river craft, architecture, farm crops and boscage – overwhelming in its abundance of detail.
Yet it all exists at once, a perfect present, captured (imaginatively) in a single instant on the pilgrimage occasion of the annual Tomb Sweeping Festival; throngs of Chinese from every walk of life teem upstream from the imperial capital, Kaifeng, to do ritual obeisance to their ancestors, with many a dalliance along the way.
The scroll stuns you with its simultaneity, its myriad characters comprising a surge of life as sweeping as the Kaifeng river itself anchors the composition. How to reproduce such a masterpiece in our own atomized age?
Hong Kong cineaste Zhu Shengze has come as close as anyone. Her film Present.Perfect, which has its Canadian premiere at VIFF, presents us China’s torrent of anonymous humanity through a series of fleeting one-by-one vignettes that home in on individual figures and points of view. And, miraculously, she’s done it without once touching a camera.
Rather she lets her subjects portray themselves in livestream cellphone feeds culled from the online maelstrom that swirls behind the Great Firewall of China. The result is a hodgepodge of jump-cut snippets with all the blunt, seemingly artless immediacy of early Cinema Verité.
Except, unlike the fly-on-the-wall verité premise of the camera as an unobserved observer, the people in Present.Perfect are acutely aware of being watched and heard. They interrupt themselves in mid-spiel to welcome in new fans, squelch hecklers, answer audience queries and thank followers for cyber-tossing them micro-donations of some sort of online crypto-coinage. We’re viewing virtualities, here, not verities.
Still, the film retains a retro verité aesthetic in its choppy editing and its cockamamie framing, now horizontal then vertical or anything in-between depending on the vagaries of a selfie stick. Not to mention the grainy black-and-white filter that Zhu applies to all her footage.
Apt choice, that, for most of her subjects live their lives in shades of grey. They subsist almost subliminally, taken for granted at the margins of economic dynamism, like ghosts – Hungry Ghosts, avid for attention. The film opens with a flurry images – a dumpsite, a view from a towering construction crane, a moon-walking contortionist break-dancer in a hard-hat mumming atop a half-built high-rise, a foppish (but tone-deaf) karaoke busker singing all alone in the shadow of a highway overpass. Everything seems covered in the fine grit of a country that is permanently under construction.
Or demolition. One affecting scene shows a pillowy person of indeterminate age, gender or even size stumbling, flummoxed, amidst a rubble-strewn plain that offers no scaling factor. It’s his/her home neighborhood, but he/she confesses to the camera (half giggling, half sobbing) that he/she has no idea where he/she is since all points of orientation have been obliterated.
Then there’s the hideously scarred burn victim, with half his face and one of his hands obliterated. Or the stunted street artist, born with shriveled arms, legs and fingers, who films himself head-on at curb level, wriggling down the sidewalk chalking designs with the palms of his hands as unconcerned passerby swirl around him. Or the pretty sweatshop piece worker negotiating her own bride-price with total online strangers as she stitches up brassieres with preternatural speed and skill.
About 20 minutes into the film, I’m dizzy with the netizen’s dilemma – it’s all too fascinating to look away, yet too kinky to watch in comfort. That way lies addiction.
But then Zhu swerves away from atomized snippets and starts to revisit some of her subjects, including some of the most ostensibly grotesque. So we learn that the pillowy androgyne is, in fact, male and suffering from a pituitary deficiency that has kept him closeted for all his 30 years and dependent on family in a warren of low-rise hutong slums now slated to be flattened for high-rise development. And we follow him as he bravely steps out, for the first time in his life, to take up a far-off factory job.
We trail the burn victim into a karaoke bar where he’s denied a mike lest he scare the customers, so he returns home to knock back some beers with his unseen online friends. We meet the toddler daughter that the pretty seamstress is toiling to raise in her sweatshop dorm a thousand miles from their inland home.
We hear the foppish busker’s tearful recognition that, talentless though he knows himself to be, he has a right – and a need – to be heard. The stunted street artist invites us into his cramped, but tidy, room where he carefully washes off the sidewalk dust and pads around, erect, on his shriveled limbs, with startling grace, force and efficiency, washing laundry and cooking. He regales us with his matter-of-fact philosophy of upbeat fatalism as he spoon-feeds himself dinner (“I can’t use chopsticks.”)
Zhu’s climactic scene is when two of her subjects – the pituitary case and the burn victim – get to meet online. We watch as the unlined androgynous face finally confronts the mask of seared flesh in an onscreen cameo inset. “Do I scare you?” the burn victim asks, hoisting what’s left of his eyebrows. To which the androgyne replies with just a shake of the head, half-sobbing, half-giggling – a reaction that, by that time, we can only share.