QINGTING ZHI YAN (DRAGONFLY EYES)
Editor's Note: This essay by Tony Rayns first appeared in the programme booklet for Frames of Representation: New Visions for Cinema a season of films and accompanying discussion presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in April 2018.
The film screens once only at the SFF in the very small Dendy Opera Quays 3 on Friday 15 June at 8.15 pm. Tickets at this link .
Thanks to Tony for permission to reprint here.
Xu Bing has a global reputation as a leading visual-conceptual artist, and his first-ever film extends his range brilliantly. The images in Dragonfly Eyesare drawn from material found on-line: most of it from public surveillance cameras, some of it from those websites on which brash-but-fragile individuals bid for fame as micro-celebrities. Every frame of the film is documentary. All of this actually happened. But the storyline, the dialogue and the sound design are fictional, created expressly for the film. There is a symbiotic relationship between the image-track and the soundtrack. Images have been edited to illustrate an aural drama, but found images have also been allowed to shape and change that drama. Xu Bing is not the first person to work this way, but nobody has ever attempted this kind of filmmaking on this scale – or with such social, cultural, sexual and, yes, philosophical resonances.
The story: A young woman with the unusual name Qingting (“Dragonfly”) grows impatient with the growing materialism of the Buddhist temple where she has been preparing for ordination. She opts out and leaves to explore the secular world. Her first job is in a highly mechanised dairy farm, where she worries about the ‘happiness’ of the cows. The engineer Ke Fan develops a crush on Qingting (not really reciprocated) and frees one of the cows in the hope of pleasing her. Both of them are fired. Qingting moves to a city and starts working in a dry-cleaning shop. Ke Fan stalks her and tries to intervene when a nouveau-riche customer victimises her. He tries to introduce his theory about ‘geo-magnetic recordings’ to Qingting, but his reprisals against the abusive customer land him in jail. When he’s released three years later, he can find no trace of Qingting – until he stumbles upon evidence that she may have had plastic surgery and become a web-site host under a new name …
For obvious reasons, many young women and men caught in surveillance footage from roads, shops, restaurants and workplaces appear in the film as Qingting and Ke Fan. Less obviously, Xu Bing uses the characters’ fluid identities to pose larger questions about gender identity, spiritual identity and the very concept of visual evidence. He sets the story in a chaotic world of natural and man-made catastrophes, and uses a phenomenal score by Hanno Yoshihiro to underline the pervasive sense of foreboding. And he introduces a cyber-entity which calls itself “Dragonfly” and tries – but fails – to rationalise events by classifying their visual components.
It’s usual these days to look for political meanings in Chinese independent art and there is no doubt an implied political dimension in Dragonfly Eyes. But Xu Bing never limits himself to any one frame of representation. His film provides vivid clues to the way China looks and feels now – not so different from the way London looks and feels, as it happens – but it goes much further. As the Surrealists said, Power to the Imagination!