Experimental cinema isn’t something many audiences would associate with mainland China, though there’s a growing pool of highly creative and talented young filmmakers trying their hands at far out fare. The up and coming Jianqiang Xue (who also goes by the name Kokoka) is one such director, and his “Deformity Sci-Fi” is an indie film that’s at first glance rather hard to pin down, with elements of documentary, narrative fiction and art house cinema. It’s a strange, heady mix shot in his hometown Shanxi and following the lives and misdemeanours of a gang of lowly hooligans as they go about their daily business, arguing, fighting, drinking, collecting money and committing crimes against the backdrop of an imminent visit to China by Martians, whose motivations are unknown.
Jianqiang Xue describes the film as being “full of the impermanence of violence”, and the film is perhaps best thought of as a piece of raw cinematic poetry, showing an unrestrained imagination and creative, artistic spirit throughout. Its brief synopsis only scratches the surface, and the film gradually develops from a gritty gang drama with an improvised air to something far less conventional, plunging into the bizarre and obscure as it builds towards an abstract and existential ending. Depicting a brutal and nihilistic community characterised by self-gratification and confusion, it’s a gloriously messy piece of cinema at times, Jianqiang Xue revelling in its chaos and dislocation. Filled with bleak, dusty scenery, the film frequently feels post-apocalyptic, though its only armageddon is that of a generation left alienated and dazed by a society that has changed irrevocably, leaving them stranded and with violence and amorality as their only options.
Jianqiang Xue shows a strong visual sense, and while low budget the film has many striking scenes, with a strong sense of composition and of coarse, bleak beauty. As with his other works, there’s a certain sense of the absurd, in particular with regards to the film’s science fiction elements (also touched on in his even less conventional “Martian Syndrome”, which despite having different subject matter and approach can be seen as a companion piece of sorts), and this makes for some effective moments of humour as its characters lurch from one transgression to another, never seeming to care about their actions or their fates. Initially at least the Martian visit is an oddly anecdotal background detail at best, and the fact that the characters seem to care so little for such a world-changing event serves to effectively underline their disconnection from society.
Ultimately though, “Deformity Sci-Fi” is a film that’s almost impossible to describe, and which needs to be experienced and absorbed rather than understood. Jianqiang Xue is a director of both considerable technical talent and vision, and there are very few filmmakers either in China or elsewhere in the world who seem so consistently determined to ignore boundaries and to marry together the many different forms and techniques of cinema. Though there’s no denying that the results might not be to the taste of all viewers, for anyone who enjoys broadening their mind and experiencing a very different side of Chinese cinema, a million miles away from multiplex martial arts blockbusters and historical epics, it’s a fascinating and challenging piece of artistic eccentricity.
(“Deformity Sci-Fi” plays the 2014 Chinese Visual Festival in London on Saturday 10th May.)