Berlin 2014: 'Shadow Days' review

★★★★☆
In recent years, filmmaker Zhao Dayong has garnered a reputation for being one of China's most outspoken dissident voices. Zhao's preoccupation with exploring the dark heart of China's global image has situated him as a key player in its recent independent documentary movement. Shadow Days (2014) is Zhao's second fictional feature and continues his study of the country's difficult relationship with its past. A wide aerial shot reveals the beauty of the Chinese countryside. It's an image to be savoured, as the exquisiteness of this rural idyll will soon be forgotten as we descend into Liang Renwei's (Liang Ming) hometown.

Renwei has returned to his secluded birthplace with his pregnant girlfriend, Pomegranate (Li Ziqian), to escape his dubious past. With the help of his uncle, he picks up some work at the town's family planning clinic, ironically finding an aptitude for forcing women to abort their babies as part of the country's one-child policy, whilst his own child continues to gestate within his girlfriend's womb. However, the town is haunted by faceless ghosts of the past and Renwei and Pomegranate's presence soon begins to exacerbate the town's deteriorating community spirit Although a departure from the urban locales that marked his previous work, Zhao continues his study of the impact globalisation has had upon China's communities.

Zhao employs a myriad of stylistic techniques to articulate his message and, as a result, his shots are packed with symbolic references. Despite replacing the stripped back realism of his documentaries for a more conventional aesthetic, Zhao manages to convey an air of objectivity in an attempt to retain an element of realism within this fictional narrative. However, moments of eerie surrealism are also deployed to express the incongruity and disconnection felt within contemporary rural spaces - left to rot whilst its inhabitants migrate to China's booming urban centres to find work. Zhao's debut film, 2008's Street Life, similarly documented the homeless living on the streets of Shanghai during the city's recent property bubble and large-scale urbanisation.

Whilst the primary focus of Shadow Days is China's one-child policy, there remains a strong focus on those pushed further into the margins by China's economic growth. Though reliant on symbolism (including numerous effigies of Chairman Mao), it's Zhao's mischievous dalliances with surrealism that lets him illustrate a society anaesthetised from achieving any semblance of identity. The town is a place where the ideological relics of the past remain, occupying the same space as the contemporary influx of capitalism - a space where memories of the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution continue to resound. An unflinching and horrifying perspective on rural China, Shadow Days is a film that gets under your skin and refuses to budge.

The 2014 Berlin Film Festival takes place from 6-16 February. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble

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