Experimental Reviews

Huo Zhe [Living] (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Kino Lee

Writers: Kino Lee

Running time: 3mins

The open-ended questions that the hallucinatory visions experimental directors conjure up serve can serve as cathartic therapy in a crowded world of competing narratives, each overtly bellowing at you to believe me. That’s one of my favourite things about experimental cinema; unlike narrative film it possesses a liberating lack of closure, leaving me to do some much-needed introspection for a change.

I can be left wondering “what the hell did I just watch,” without ever really knowing, and it doesn’t really matter – with the best experimental movies, the question which inevitably takes precedent in the end is “what did I feel and think during this film, and what mechanisms did it deploy that brought that response out of me?” I can understand why the self-searching this provokes might be so terrifying for some people, but in small bursts it is something which can be extremely healthy.

Kino Lee’s Huo Zhe (the Mandarin forLiving) is a perfect example of this. The film is an at-times-infuriating minimalist composition of flat, stationary images and maddening audio dissonance, which brilliantly draws together seemingly mundane and disconnected cues to whip up a maelstrom of conflicts and possibilities.

Throughout the duration of the piece, the camera (operated by Lee’s lone collaborator Cya Chou) holds on Lee’s hands, which are submerged in water. Shot entirely in black and white, initially, the pool is relatively still and clear, the hands relaxed under the ripples of the gently rippling surface – but after 14 seconds of stillness, the scene suddenly bursts into life. Starting out as a small stream of bubbles, soon the whole pool is jumping with pockets of air – obscuring the hands which lay beneath.

The sudden injection of movement is accompanied by a haunting violin solo, which is excellently deployed to gradually imply something sinister may be unfolding. The initially soothing, elongated notes swiftly devolve into protracted whines and sudden screeches, pairing with the seething commotion of the bubbles as they reach their crescendo. As the action seems to reach its zenith, two key elemental changes occur. A dark liquid – it is impossible to say what colour it is in black and white – begins to leak out from the tempestuous cloud; and at the same time, while the violin threatens to match it with a new shrieking apex, it is instead drowned out by a peaceful and meandering piano soundtrack.

While it is impossible to say exactly what is being said here, if anything, it seems to me that the polymathic Lee (who serves as pianist, violinist, composer and arranger, as well as director, writer and hand-model) is performing some kind of ideological analysis. As mentioned, pairing the increasingly unnerving violin with the tumult of the bubbles suggests there is a less than wholesome process taking place, which suddenly yields an ominous black ooze into the previously pure water, contaminating ‘life itself,’ and permanently destroying the peace and clarity it possessed at the start of the film. Just as this moment of destruction occurs, the violin which has informed us of this process is itself obscured by a piano that seems to suggest “all is well. Go on as normal.”

I am keen to resist transplanting my own meaning onto Lee’s work, when it could mean any number of things to another audience. At the same time, in a world where so many competing crises seem to be reaching their peak, while being completely obfuscated by competing narratives put forth by different interests seeking to gain or maintain power amid the chaos, it is hard not to see this as an evisceration of the impotence of the current political moment.

The coronavirus crisis has worsened significantly in countries unwilling to implement a lockdown properly – all the while, leading narratives in those places concerns ploughing on as though nothing was wrong, persevering with empty rituals, still making time for Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years Eve, despite the body-count from Covid-19 still hovering around that of a daily 9/11. Climate change is fast approaching a point-of-no-return meanwhile, as fires sweeping the world release huge stores of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, threatening to kickstart a chain reaction that life as we know it will not recover from. At the same time, mainstream political debate still centres on what individual consumers can do to piss into the wind, and how governments can fight global warming without offending the fossil fuel lobby.

The waters have been muddied by a cacophony of bland platitudes and mealy-mouthed truisms which con us into thinking things can go on like before. Huo Zhe seems to serve as a timely warning that when the commotion dies down, and the water finally settles, it will be permanently blackened – whatever pleasant commentary we might have used to drown out the less convenient noise until then.

Huo Zhe is incredibly abstract in its simplicity – and while that is not inherently a bad thing, it means I cannot directly commend Kino Lee one way or the other for what her intended message might have been. What I can say is truly remarkable is that her manipulation of this limited collection of raw materials has managed to send me down a deep and dark rabbit-hole of thought – and that is precisely what the best experimental art should aim to do.

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