Review: ‘La Town’ (2014) by Cao Fei

Opening last week, as part of Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA)’s 30th year celebrations and associated year-long programming, was ‘La Town’ (2014) by Cao Fei. I have a soft spot for the work of Cao Fei. Her films devour me and infiltrate my psyche with their social commentary subcurrents and hidden constructed narratives…their edge and hairline of a politicised China in a very much global conversation…the unknown and unexpected.

I’d not heard or read about this work so was intrigued about it’s storyline and premise having worked closely with her in 2013 when co-commissioning the (then) new film ‘Haze and Fog’ (2013) (read more about that here). I wondered whether her work had continued in the same vein…a dystopian urban metropolis populated by the zombie, lifeless, emotionless middle-classes in multiple forms and representations (there is in fact a zombie scene in ‘La Town’ (2014), which made me smile with familiarity).

Cao Fei La Town 2014 CFCCA 2

The story line in ‘La Town’ (2014) is static; the characters are frozen; the constructed narrative playing out through a change of individually handmade and hand-painted figures, sets and scenes all in small-scale – a stolen land of La Town’s minutiae explained through a French overlaid narrative (with English subtitles).

Movement comes only from the panning camera and light play, and the sexualised depiction of female figures either in the act of sex, naked exhibitionism or provocative dancing. Is this a reference to the global issue of gender power plays or discrimination of the sexes? One specific scene plays out in a museum, which I see and translate as being a mausoleum for the film itself, and of the reality of life. Throughout, there are visual references signposting viewers to cinematic classics including Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959). This play with your known and unknown visual cues between reality (the chance of recognising a scene or dialogue) and fiction (Cao Fei’s personal constructed reality) add layers of meaning bringing the minutiae of life into clear focus.

Cao Fei La Town 2014 CFCCA 16

Cao Fei La Town 2014 CFCCA 5

As the story comes to an end, you realise it is a story about the illusion of love…of falling in love…in love with a new place or city…a lust for love in whatever destructive form or hoped fiction…a story about the inescapable love of ‘La Town’ that is ultimately, interwoven into everyday life through the multiple (and often) digital medias we encounter on a daily basis.

I wish Cao Fei was a novel writer…you wouldn’t be able to put her books down because they’d be so unforgiving in their description and dialogue. She actually achieves this in film creating her realities for you to delve in, get lost in, to (dystopian) dream. It makes me wonder how I’d construct my realities(?). [‘La Town’ (2014) was originally exhibited as part of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. It is on show at CFCCA until 27 March 2016.]

To finish, here are some quotations from the film’s French dialogue that resonated with wordgirl’s psyche:

“Deform me to the point of ugliness”

“I see the ink
I see the daylight
I see my life and your death”

“I’m afraid of never seeing you again”

“Chaos will prevail”

“I see that shadows take longer in the room…in La Town…”

“I myself
Lost in thought”

“Born to wander in the funnel of possibilities”

“Indispensable like a grain of sand”

Cao Fei La Town 2014 CFCCA 15

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