I’m not eager to see “Kaili Blues” a second time. But I’d love to watch each scene again. If that’s an elliptical statement, it befits a film that’s baffling as a whole though beautiful in its parts.
The feature debut of the writer and director Bi Gan, “Kaili Blues” finds Chen (Chen Yongzhong), a physician, working at a shabby medical clinic in Kaili, a city in China. After arguing with his ne’er-do-well brother, Chen sets out on a trek through the countryside seeking his young nephew, who has been sent away.
As Chen moves along via train, truck, motorcycle and boat, we hear snippets about his time in prison and his problematic family. We meet others who, in their own ways, also appear to be searching for something. It can be hard to tell, given that dialogue is kept to a minimum; Mr. Bi is far more interested in conveying emotion through visuals and symbols than through words or actions.
It’s possible that this is all a dream journey, or an after-death experience. Chen’s travels have a fantastical quality, particularly when he stops in a surreal small town: past, present and future sometimes seem to meld together, or to echo one another. Poetry by Mr. Bi is occasionally read in voice-over, further nurturing an otherworldly feeling.
The film is partly a meditation on grappling with ancient traditions in a modern China, as well as an outline of one man’s regrets. Still, Mr. Bi is in no rush to offer up a deeper meaning. Instead, he is content to deliver extended shots and images that are achingly melancholy, and teasingly cluttered. Watch closely: There’s always something curious situated beyond the characters, or on the edges of the frame — outside, a view of lush hills or decaying structures; inside, a piece of art or trash.
Just as intriguing are the recurrences of decline and repair. Almost every vehicle or appliance here is in a state of breakdown or overhaul. Construction is rampant on roads and buildings. Bodies, too, malfunction; one doctor muses about the futility of cures, since all patients are ultimately destined for more illness. It’s easy to carry these ideas and analogies over to a country in flux, and to matters of the heart and soul. (Particularly when one young woman gives a young man a charm that she says will fix his constantly stalling motorbike.)
“Kaili Blues” will appeal to only a small fraction of filmgoers. For all his talents, Mr. Bi has a habit of lingering on a shot a few moments too long, enamored of what he finds there, and of treating the plot with indifference. As lovely as the movie is to look at (and the final scene is exceptionally wonderful), it’s too oblique to concentrate its energies and sharpen its focus. Much as with a dream, once the film is over, it’s possible to discount the very things that held you enthralled.
“Kaili Blues” is not rated. It is in Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.
An earlier version of the picture caption with this review was accompanied by an erroneous credit. The picture is by Grasshopper Film, not Grasshopper Films.