“Dong” is a companion piece to Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s prize winning “Still Life”, and both played at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. Interestingly, it was this documentary which was actually planned first, with the joint project coming about after Jia was invited to the area by a painter to capture his work on film. Although the two films are probably best viewed together, sharing many of the same themes and locations, “Dong” works well as a stand-alone piece in the director’s trademark cryptic manner.
The film follows a painter called Liu Xiaodong, and is split into two parts, the first being set in the spectacular Three Gorges Dam area (as was “Still Life”), where he attempts to paint a large picture of twelve men who are working on demolishing buildings for the project. As he paints, he grows closer to his subjects and their lives, and this in turn begins to express itself in his work. The second half sees Liu fly to Bangkok, where he works on a similar piece involving some local girls, though this time his relationship with the focus of his art is hampered somewhat by cultural and language barriers.
“Dong” differs from the traditional documentary form in that it does not have a clear subject as such, and Jia touches on a number of different themes, including the relationship of artists to their art and their subjects, the relationship between people and the environment, and the question as to whether or not art can truly emulate life. As such, the film comes across as being meditative rather than informative, and is as much an exploration of the director’s own thoughts as anything else. This does mean that the proceedings are somewhat unfocused, and unsurprisingly the film never comes to any kind of conclusion, though it works well as a contemplative enigma in a way which compliments the themes in a suitably unforced manner.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the film is the rumination upon art, mainly since it shows a fascinating sense of self-awareness, with most of the painter’s concerns seeming to echo those of the director himself. Indeed, in most of the interviews with the painter, he talks mainly of how his art reflects his personality and his desire to transcend the petty concerns and constraints of modern society, something which raises the complex question of Jia’s relationship with him as a subject. Certainly, he appears at times to be more of a mouthpiece than a case study, albeit a rather pretentious one, though this is mainly due to the frequent shots of him staring into the distance in laughably melancholic fashion.
Jia’s naturalistic directorial style lends itself well to the documentary form, and his predilection for long, languid shots arguably works better here than in some of his narrative features. The film is packed with lingering shots of the landscape, some of which are hauntingly beautiful, especially during the parts filmed in the Three Gorges area. Through this, Jia manages to subtly work in the same themes of migration and urbanisation which he explored in “Still Life”, by contrasting the surrounding scenery with shots of ruined buildings.
“Dong” does have a travelogue feel to it, particularly during the painter’s later journey to Bangkok, with plenty of scenes of local colour being packed in to highlight the cultural differences he experiences. Interestingly, much of the Thai dialogue is unsubtitled either in Chinese or English, possibly as a means of underscoring the distance between the artist and his subjects in this foreign country.
Of course, as ever with Jia, it is hard to know exactly what his intentions are, and “Dong” is certainly open to a number of different interpretations. As such, it should appeal to any fans of the director’s usual style, and though it may confound anyone expecting a straightforward documentary, it makes for intriguing viewing and confirms him as one of China’s most interesting and original directors. Although perhaps, as he seems to be suggesting here, ‘artist’ may be a more fitting term.
Zhang Ke Jia (director) / Zhang Ke Jia (screenplay)
CAST: Xiaodong Liu … Himself