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Who is Sleeping in Silver Grey (Bai tian zong shi tai guo man cahng)

Beautiful yet baffling, this Chinese arthouse film is a transportive yet frustrating experience — live from Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival!


On a purely aesthetic level, Who is Sleeping in Silver Grey is a masterpiece. On a narrative level it frustrates as much as it beguiles, resulting in an impenetrable experience. One repeated motif is a bird smashing its head against a glass windowpane. I couldn’t help but feel like this bird, seeing the images in front of me but unable to get through to their genuine meaning.

It begins in Shanghai, 1927; pre-revolution, bustling and international. The first thing we notice is the rain, constantly pelting down in almost every early scene. A New Year’s celebration is led by an Italian jazz band; it quickly cuts to a funeral for the Italian pianist. The young Yang Zipei (Ze Ying) carries his baby, facing an uncertain future.

We learn nothing more of her, the film quickly jumping decades into the future, with her granddaughter Cheng Die (Yinyin Ma) teaching piano in Dehai City (which doesn’t seem to exist in reality…). It’s clear from this epic jump in time that Who Is Sleeping in Silver Grey is uninterested in telling a conventional story, often confusing in its depiction of who relates to who, why something is happening or how certain scenes develop. It uses nightmare logic to create a poetic reverie, the topic of which is frustratingly out of my grasp. Soon Die is kicked out of her town for sleeping with one of the student’s parents and sent to mysterious Linyuan Town, a place where no one speaks and everyone seems haunted. It’s hard to say exactly what happens next, let alone what it means.

It’s better to focus on the great filmmaking itself. The use of the academy ratio is inspired, realising the full cinematic and epic potential of such frames. Many people use it as an intimate shorthand, filled with small details and intense close-ups, but here we see so much more potential from the format. As the square aesthetic gives the impression of a high vertical plane, director Liao Zihao uses plenty of negative space to create some immaculate mise-en-scène, whether it’s our hero situated in the corner of the frame, seeing her subsumed by the space around her, or planimetric compositions bisected into halves and quarters, allowing us to feast on the beauty of the production design.

Fans of slow cinema — cinema that’s more about the look than the story — will be delighted. One seemingly incongruous reference to The Suspending Step of the Stork (Theodore Angelopoulos, 1991) seems to show where Zihao’s inspiration lies. The black-and-white cinematography makes the most of contrast between light and dark while casting a wide depth of frame, resulting in a genuinely transportive experience. Still, I couldn’t help feel that I would rather attend a gallery exhibition of the same frames as opposed to actually watching the sequential film again.

With mythological creatures, centaurs and angels, occasionally coming into view, as well as foggy moments that recall Kenji Mizoguchi’s ghost-like fables, there is evidently a crucial Chinese context that I am missing here — perhaps to do with ancient tales, perhaps to do with the Chinese revolution. Nonetheless, when I let my critical brain go and the images wash over me, I found some of the most assured directing from a first-time director in many years. It’s the kind of film you should go to see with your friends. Maybe if you work together, you can figure out what it’s all about.

Who is Sleeping in Silver Grey plays in the First Feature Competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 12th – 28th November.

By Redmond Bacon - 20-11-2021

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