I assume this was on my must-see list because a bunch of New Yorker critics put it on their best-of-year lists paired with Still Life. Given how unimpressed I was with Still Life overall, I should’ve known better than to seek out its lesser-known companion piece. But I’m also drawn to 70-minute movies and figured it couldn’t hurt (it did; it put me to sleep).
We meet a painter at Three Gorges Dam.
Later he goes to Thailand.
Recommended listening: Psalm 69 by Ministry.
Supposedly “Dong” means “East” in Mandarin – not to be confised with Tsai Ming-liang’s Dong, which means “The Hole” in Taiwanese.
Ian Johnston for Bright Lights:
A week after starting on Dong, Jia decided to make Still Life, from then on shooting the two films in parallel. In fact, the films share some of the same footage, including nonprofessional actor Han Sanming. Han’s appearance in both films playing a demolition worker alongside real workers raises some interesting questions about the “documentary” nature of Dong. It seems to share here the aesthetics of Jia’s fiction filmmaking, where questions of form – the composition of the image, the placement and movement or lack of movement of the camera, shot length – have as important a role as a film’s content, and the way that content reflects a social reality. This slippage between documentary and artifice in Dong is interesting, but the film itself is a minor work of limited appeal. One of its problems is that although Jia feels a generational and artistic affinity with Liu, Liu’s painting style – the focus of Dong – is of the most banal representational realism, far away from the challenges of Jia’s aesthetics. Moreover, the second half of Dong is very weak, with the scenes in Bangkok, in striking contrast to those in Fengjie, appearing touristic and inauthentic.
Scott Tobias: “In every case, the backdrops of Jia’s films are extraordinary: Momentous, politically engaged, and strongly attuned to the consequences of progress on a macro scale. And in every case, he also seems oddly incapable of doing anything interesting in the foreground.”