LFF 2013: 'Four Ways to Die in My Hometown' review

First-time feature director Chai Chunya's Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (2012), screening today at LFF, is a beautiful, meditative take on remembering as a mode of healing. It's a deeply spiritual exploration into the feelings of many of China's rural-to-urban migrants who, much like Chai himself, left their hometowns to find work in one of the nation's modernising metropolises. Shifting the mainstream critical focus from China's burgeoning cities and the economic success they represent, this deeply personal film shines a poetic light on the forgotten rural life and those who are "walking in the darkness".

Stunningly shot in a remote Chinese village in the Gansu province (the director's own hometown), the loose narrative of this mainly abstract film follows a young migrant's journey back to her rural hometown on the news that her father is dying. We begin on the banks of a bleak and still river, with a smoke churning industrial city looming in the background. Gu Gui lies in the murky grey water and waits for the yearning for her hometown to carry her home. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, we are born of the four elements (Earth, Water, Fire and Wind) and return to them when we die. 

Four Ways to Die in My Hometown is structured into these aforementioned four parts, elevating its locale into the realm of the magical and imaginary. Within this spiritual framework, Chai stylistically explores relationships between old and new, dark and light, nature and artifice. The collision of these binaries exhibit the anxiety and madness of those left behind, and feelings of homesickness, guilt and melancholy for forgotten ways of life permeate every frame. When Gui returns, we discover her father had been living in a coffin for seven years, waiting simply to die. Shouting a tirade of abuse at the spirits that haunt him, from inside the coffin his disembodied voice serves as the collective cry of an entire forgotten rural population.

The theme of death is ubiquitous, and represents the dying traditions and culture of rural Chinese life. The current rural to urban migration in China is the largest in history, an economic necessity that has left many rural Chinese isolated and existing at the bottom end of a huge wealth disparity. Death is not just a metaphor here, but an everyday reality for the rural poor. For Gui, her hometown seems to stand outside of time and space, sweeping landscape shots hang in stasis, roads lead to nowhere, and the ones that do are blocked by stubborn sleep-walking camels. Ghosts wander the mountainous paths; death has already claimed this village.

Chunya's Four Ways to Die in My Hometown conjures folklore and memories to explore the notion that the hometown may be dying in the material sense, but continues to exist in the spiritual, in the practice of traditional culture and in the hearts of minds of those who have left. At the beginning of the film a madman shouts from a hill top: "people are blind in these modern times, they cannot see their ancestors who fly like birds," a pertinent reminder of the importance of remembering.

The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Carol Mei Barker


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