In Qiu Sheng’s tale of urbanization in western China, governmental mechanisms behave like cosmic forces of nature. While a group of surveyors investigates complaints of sinkholes around a new suburb—most likely linked to the haphazard ongoing construction of a subway tunnel—Xiahao, the most contemplative of the engineers, happens upon a diary in an abandoned school. As he reads, he immerses himself in the tenderly quotidian rhythms of a group of schoolchildren—anchored by a charismatic little boy also named Xiahao—moving through a world that still feels new, exploring seemingly limitless local forests (also the audience’s first lush experience outside of concrete). Gradually, a handful of these friends disappear, displaced by housing reassignments; as rendered by Xiahao’s young memory, these are sudden and inexplicable vanishings.
Qiu’s directorial touch is remarkably gentle—while rhyming images and stories across both plotlines, he avoids schematic logic in favor of a light mystery of unity, seeking a quiet depth beyond sensory perception. By framing that search as subversive, his intimate scale contrasts intriguingly with more bombastic epics of contemporary China. Yet the emotional specificity of the concrete world tends to sharpen his dreaminess: as one of the children gazes out from her balcony onto a demolished lot, she listens to machinery gnashing the rubble even as the landscape retains an eerie stillness—kept at a safely observable distance, despite the audible threat to any sense of permanence.
Chloe Lizottewrites on film and music for Reverse Shot, Screen Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in New York.
Smoke gets in your eyes: this year's edition included titles like Direct Action, exergue – on documenta 14, Favoriten, and Dahomey, all of which probe, in very different ways, the responsibilities of civic and cultural institutions