Reviewed by: Michael Pattison

An arts piece whose suggestive narrative current (haunted and haunting souls finding solace in one another amidst post-urban abandonment) recalls the 2006 Malaysia-set I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, Yumen is a 65-minute cine-poem about a once-booming ghost town, Yumen, in Gansu Province, northwest China. Shot in a 1.33:1 ratio and on 16mm – a statement on resistibility and recyclability in itself, perhaps – the film is an eerie blend of documentary and performance. It traces two solitary figures - a man and a woman - whose drifting movements intersect within this otherwise uninhabited landscape.

From its outset, the various textures of this physical space are juxtaposed with and offset by an unexpected human presence: over images of mud, oil-soaked pipes, swamps and drilling rigs we hear a disembodied voice humming. The audiovisual disconnect continues, creating a drifting, almost oneiric quality that is undercut immediately when a catchy pop tune begins – only to abruptly end as a human figure makes its way across a quarry, dwarfed within its vastness. (Later, this figure turns out to be some sort of military recruit, apparently lost; he dances to the same catchy tune far off in the distance.)

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Disembodied voice-overs recall snippets of memories linked to this place. One person talks of a “red building where ghosts would appear”, another speaks about a friend who drunk herself to death while hoping for an earthquake. Traditions live on in fragments, with references to the Qiang Flute mourning the willow tree.

As something akin to a romantic interest develops between the film’s two lost souls, unexpected sounds and images reconceptualise the space in question. The military recruit creates music by clattering two light bulbs together, while a naked man is seen atop a monolith (how did he get there? how will he get down?). Gradually, some sense of history develops: when its oil ran dry following a boom in the 1990s, we learn, much of Yumen’s male population migrated to Hami, only to return years later “with drugs and money … it was here when many families began to fall apart”. No architectural or economic ruin, the film reminds us, occurs in a social vacuum, though the ethereal textures on display here seem somehow fitting.

Mournful in tone and associative in style and rhythm, Yumen recalls Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City (2008) in the way in which it both documents and reconfigures a contestable landscape at a specific historical juncture. While the earlier film felt like the singular result of its distinctive director, though, Yumen is the outcome of collaborative experimentation. The three names that share directorial credit here are JP Sniadecki, Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang, whose divergent artistic backgrounds may account for the film’s layered and complementary riches. Sniadecki’s previous films include the similarly-concerned Foreign Parts (2010) and People’s Park (2012), whereas Xu Ruotao brings to the film a visual and conceptual artist’s sensibility; completing the trio, meanwhile, is renowned poet Huang Xiang, whose master calligraphy features throughout.

Reviewed on: 10 Jun 2013
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A visit to a Chinese ghost town.

Director: J P Sniadecki, Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao

Starring: Xue Hua, Chen Qi, Zhou Qian, Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao

Year: 2013

Runtime: 65 minutes

Country: China, USA


EIFF 2013

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If you like this, try:

24 City
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone