Magazine article Metro Magazine

The Art of Subversion: Luo Li's Li Wen at East Lake

Magazine article Metro Magazine

The Art of Subversion: Luo Li's Li Wen at East Lake

Article excerpt


Li Wen at East Lake (2015) is the latest genre-defying effort from Chinese-born Canadian director Luo Li; the film cements him as a significant voice in world cinema, with a film style that can only be described as his own. Working within an experimental framework that blends documentary and fictional elements, the film explores issues of helplessness and hopelessness in contemporary China. Luo Li's cinema is sparse and fragmented, with an eye for the sublime--a world where narrative threads are spontaneously constructed and disassembled. Taken cumulatively, however, the message is that of political rebellion.

The film is set around the eponymous East Lake, a natural wonder and significant landmark in the sprawling city of Wuhan. Also Luo Li's home town, Wuhan appears to be a continuing source of inspiration for the filmmaker, who used the location in his preceding film, Emperor Visits the Hell (2012). Li Wen at East Lake is an extension of this work, with art teacher and non-professional actor Li Wen once again playing the lead role, this time as a police investigator.

The opening images are static long takes of a forest surrounding the lake and the theme-park construction site at its fringes. These images serve as a prologue to the central ideas of the film--the repressive power of collectivism, the ominous influence of encroaching commercialism--and are framed such that the construction site superimposes itself over the natural landscape. These give way to a documentary format, with Li Wen interviewing local residents about recent high-rise developments in the area. We quickly learn that the developers are illegally filling in parts of the lake to make way for the new buildings and the theme park. There are mixed reactions --students express concerns about the environmental and cultural consequences for future Wuhan citizens, a man suggests that locals who buy the real estate early can make profits, and a group of retired farmers boast they have too much time to relax after receiving large compensation for selling their land. The interview passages are broken up by thoughtfully composed landscape images of recreation and cultural pursuits around the lake--for instance, a group of fishermen carefully swim a net out into the lake, and bring it back again in a sequence that is slow and meditative. These sequences then begin to meander outside of the central documentary narrative, deviating from the interviews rather than reinforcing them. They enact Luo Li's daydream-like approach to film form, whereby cohesive narrative elements give way to freeform observation, often without warning or effort.

While the residents debate the pros and cons of development, its consequences are illustrated by a series of Google satellite images of East Lake from 2012 until the present, showing the truncation of the lake. As progress ensues, the natural beauty and cultural significance of the lake are drained away and replaced by 'distractions' such as theme parks and commercial edifices such as the high-rises. We are shown the residents' helplessness over the lake's future, and the message seems to be that corruption--which arises from a 'progress at all costs' mindset--proceeds without any consideration for the people. Cultural assets and traditions are traded for capitalist structures; the inhabitants can accept it or not, but development happens regardless.

This idea is punctuated by a sequence in which high-level government officials and engineers discuss plans for the lake as the new site for the Wuhan international airport. The meeting's chair exclaims--in an amusing, if not disturbing, manner--'The airport [over the lake] will be like a butterfly emerging from its pupa' and, with this, it appears that the fate of the lake is sealed. …

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