Watched a very haunting film at the Singapore International Film Festival last night, and need to get it out in words.
Dragonfly Eyes is the directorial debut of acclaimed Chinese artist Xu Bing. It’s hard to classify the film into any genre, but I would say it is definitely avant-garde (for its groundbreaking techniques), and falls into the categories of mystery/thriller.
The most striking thing about this film is that it is made completely with raw footage from surveillance cameras, web cams and live streams on the Internet – evidently a postmodernist film that immediately makes one think of issues such as the Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984, the dearth of privacy in today’s age, and the footprint we leave online in the absurd, ever-present world of the Internet.
The story was assembled after sifting through 10,000 hours of footage they had collected, and reducing it to 81 minutes of random arbitrary scenes ranging from an accidental drowning, a plane crash, to prayers in a temple. The story is pieced together with the help of voiceovers of the main characters. According to the editor Matthieu Laclau, there was no fixed script and the story was improvised along the way depending on the type of footage that they got.
Qing Ting, a young woman, leaves the Buddhist temple on the hills for the city, where she finds a job as a worker in a cow factory and meets agricultural technician Ke Fan. Ke Fan falls in love with her to an obsessive extent, and goes too far when he assaults a rich lady who bullies Qing Ting, and ends up in jail. When he is released, he finds out that Qing Ting has changed her identity and undergone plastic surgery, and is now Xiao Xiao, a popular online celebrity on live stream. He desperately wants to see her again and attempts to track her down.
Click READ MORE below if you’re interested in analysis of the film from the perspective of cinema studies.
Kuleshov effect (Soviet Montage)
As a previous film student, this avant-garde piece struck me intellectually, although I didn’t prefer it personally in terms of storyline and narrative. I was reminded of the Kuleshov effect, a montage filmmaking technique the Soviet filmmakers had pioneered. The most famous example would be Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein. As opposed to realism as a filmmaking technique – showing reality as it is, as few cuts as possible and relying on long takes, the Soviet Montage relies on making meaning through the mental association of disparate images that requires the viewer to infer and understand a narrative by piecing images together themselves.
A century later in Dragonfly Eyes, we have a story constructed out of totally random images, where we never see the face of the implied main characters. Images are always blurry, grainy and far away from the subjects, as expected from the bird’s eyes view of a surveillance camera. In fact, because we don’t know what the “characters” look like, every man or woman we see in every scene makes us associate the characters to them. Complemented by a suspenseful and anxious soundtrack, it effectively induces a sense of paranoia in the viewer and keeps us gripped to the edges of our seats.
Big Brother: Government surveillance
It is mentioned early in the film that a dragonfly has more than 20,000 eyes, which sets the context of CCTV cameras early on. The female protagonist’s name is Qing Ting, which means Dragonfly in Chinese.
Given the recent official implementation of ubiquitous surveillance and tracking of its citizens by the China government in the past few years, this film, made with the medium itself, seems to be an overt criticism or at least challenge to government surveillance, given its harrowing effects on the viewer with its soundtrack and the monotonous futuristic / robotic voiceovers in English such as “The storyline swims into view”, “Her privacy has been used up”.
Surveillance cameras in China now can indeed track the identity of every single person and even inanimate objects such as car models and licence plates. It is a discomforting reminder of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where Big Brother watches its people through ‘telescreens’ everywhere, even in one’s own room.
Voyeurism & the gaze
Something I was not very comfortable with was the constant footage of real-life disaster scenes of destructions, such as landslides, typhoons and even a horrifying plane crash witnessed from the ground. During the post-screening Q&A session, the editor who was with us explained that the purpose of these scenes was to punctuate the voiceover narrative with real-life scenes so that viewers will not sink/invest too deeply into the fictional narrative they were creating out of unrelated footage. I guess the point was to infuse a persistent sense of artifice into the film, a constant breaking of the fourth wall to remind us that these footage were real-life happenings. Another reason he mentioned was to create a sense of dystopia and an apocalyptic world.
What made it ethically/morally uncomfortable was that these were real actual scenes of destruction, homes being wiped out and people dying. There were close-up scenes of people flying out of a bus that exploded, for instance. And most importantly, the narrative created actually centred around the death of Qing Ting, who either jumped or was pushed off the bridge into the river – which was never made clear. They used and repeated the footage of an actual woman’s (presumed) suicide, filmed from different CCTV cameras and angles.
It reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a classic film about a wheelchair-bound photographer peeping at the residents on the next block from his window with a zoom lens. This raises questions of voyeurism, a perverse enjoyment gained from an intrusive gaze into other people’s lives (without their consent or against their will).
The concept of ‘gaze’ is very important in cinema studies, because it is about power. The subject holds the power of the the gaze, while the person who is looked upon becomes the object. In this film, the audience is placed into an uncomfortable position of power that we may have never wanted in the first place. If the gaze is something that provides pleasure in the viewing of a film, then this pleasure is definitely perverse and questionable in terms of ethics.
The editor also mentioned that the apocalyptic scenes were added to create a foreboding sense of “Anything can happen in any frame”, and creating a sense of terror throughout the film. This was absolutely horrifying to me, not because it was like a dystopian film, but because I had actually lived in (Northern) China for a few months two years ago. What was so horrifying was that these scenes felt absolutely real and visceral to me, because over there, anything can happen – at any moment, wherever you are. A car could just ram against a person on the pedestrian pavement, vehicles didn’t follow the traffic lights and rushed in every direction, and fights could start breaking out suddenly and literally next to you on the streets.
I was so terrified that I didn’t even dare to leave the house alone, and felt like I was going to die every time I went out, especially when crossing the road. This is a side that tourists to China won’t see, because the facade presented in the coastal cities is worlds apart from the actual lives of the majority of citizens, especially in Northeastern China (close to Russia) where I was, which was less civilised compared to the rest of the country. Violence was a way of life.
Reality vs Truth
“If you fake reality, reality will be fake.”
There is a very weird and disturbing sequence towards the end when Qing Ting/Xiao Xiao the online celebrity dies, presumably from suicide after she gets cyber-bullied by trolls online. In wanting to understand why Qing Ting did plastic surgery and changed her identity to Xiao Xiao, Ke Fan went to the same clinic and transformed himself into Qing Ting (her old appearance). He retraced her footsteps in the city, trying to understand her past and wondering if it would show him his future – because here was a man who got overly obsessed with his object of affection, without whom life had become depleted of its meaning. This was really creepy for me, and the movie closed with Ke Fan, with the face of Qing Ting, going back to the Buddhist temple up on the hills.
When the head nun saw “her”, she commented: “Qing Ting, you look the same, but your voice and tone has changed.”
Afterwards, the nun said the above quote, which really hit me as the message of the film.
Being a fictional story ironically constructed with real-life footage of Chinese citizens, the medium of this film itself questions the idea of reality. It feels really ‘meta’, because usually we know that no documentary is 100% “real” – the question is how much of it is “staged” and “directed”. This film totally overturns the whole debate of documentary ethics, and questions: How much of what we think is reality is real, if it can be so easily manipulated with lies, deception and artistic direction?
Also dealing with the subject of cyber culture and online celebrities, it also makes us think, how much of what we see online is fabricated, and why are we ever so willing to believe its lies and facades? Perhaps the “fake” and the “real” switching places is nothing more than an act of escapism, until the distinction between the two ceases to matter any longer.
Of course, there is also the exploration of changing identities and in particular, plastic surgery. Bearing in mind all these themes, the quote “If you fake reality, reality will be fake” gets elevated from a trite line of Buddhist philosophy into a mediation on our human experience in a postmodern world.