“There is bound to be one who will return, to fill an empty bamboo basket with love.” intones the lonely poet at the centre of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (路边野餐, Lùbiān Yěcān) part way through his strange odyssey through the tiny yet infinite village of Dangmai, a place either out of time or entirely made of it. Longing, regret, the temporal impossibilities of memory, injustice, disappointment – a lifetime’s unresolved emotional trauma works its way into a dreamlike exploration of the past as a work in progress, half built but already obsolete. Time is just memory mixed with desire, in the words of another poet, and contrary to conventional wisdom, perhaps it does not flow ceaselessly in only one direction.
Our hero is Chen (Chen Yongzhong) – a middle aged doctor and published poet who once served time prison and inherited the money to start his clinic from his mother who passed away while he was inside. His major preoccupation in life is his young nephew – the son of his half-brother, the aptly named Crazy Face (Xie Lixun). Crazy Face is, to put it mildly, not a reliable father and often locks his son, Weiwei (Luo Feiyang), in their apartment while he wastes his life drinking and gambling. Chen has taken it upon himself to ensure the boy is well looked after – taking him on days out to the amusement park, buying him nutritious dinners, and just generally keeping him company. Chen is even prepared to adopt the boy, but Crazy Face is resentful and vindictive, irritated their mother left the family home to Chen and not to him. Eventually, Crazy Face “sells” Weiwei to an old man in another town, Zhenyuan, and Chen decides to try and fetch him back while delivering a long overdue message from his assistant to a man she once knew there before the cultural revolution who is now gravely ill.
Chen himself was once abandoned in Zhenyuan, by the mother who now haunts his dreams with the sound of lusheng pipes and memories of the Miao people who are now themselves rapidly disappearing. All Chen can see of her in his dreams is her shoes with their floral embroidery, distorted by their journey in the water. His assistant urges him to burn some paper money for her that she can use in the afterlife but to do it when no one’s looking – such ancient superstitions, like the lusheng pipes, are not to be seen or heard in the new “modern” China. Even Chen’s clinic is due to be pulled down, rendering the animosity between himself and his unhinged brother all the more pointless.
Looking for the lonely boy, who is also in a way himself, Chen chases ghosts of future and past. His passage to find the famed lusheng players and the last remnants of the Miao is precipitated by an act of fate – a young man’s attempts to kick start his motorbike to give his “girlfriend” (he seems to think that what she is, she may feel differently) Yangyang (Guo Yue) a lift fails miserably and she gets one from someone else, enabling Chen to climb on. Later we learn the young man’s name is Weiwei, and his mission is that he wants to make time run backwards because Yangyang is leaving to go to Kaili to work as a “tour guide” (it remains unclear who needs a tour in Kaili) and says she will only return if he can “turn back time”. Whether this Weiwei is somehow the teenage version of the boy Chen was looking for or not, he shares his obsession with imagined time, scrawling fake clocks on trains so that time really will be running backwards as one train passes another as if travelling into the past.
If the future can yield its ghosts then the past can too. A young hairdresser is the spitting image of Chen’s late wife who, according to a story he tells her disguised as that of a friend, he discovered had died while he was is in prison but had written him several letters in advance to hide the truth. Chen’s strange life, his time “on the streets” and accidental involvement with a stoic loanshark who accepted the death of his son at the hands of an enemy but demanded vengeance for his severed hand, might as well have been a dream for its all meandering disappointments. The gangster is now a horologist, as luck would have it. Even dreams have their logic. Only on arrival at his secondary destination does it all come together, the dream world and the real somehow merging and becoming whole once again. The past is a call that can’t be answered, but must be heard all the same.
International trailer (English subtitles)