There were some interesting questions on the survey handed out to gauge response to this film: “How often have you seen a silent film with live music?” answer: many times and then “How often have you seen a modern film mixing traditional Chinese music with modern composition?” answer: never before…
Gareth Rees’ modern silent emerged last year with a tour of China as well as elsewhere, always with live accompaniment and this was the last show of a short UK outing featuring the score performed live by Ling Peng and Andrew Middleton who provided a unique blend of textural support: something old and something very new.
As a live cinematic experience it worked very well and for an hour and a half we were submersed in the sights of Beijing regarding the city with an intimacy not always found in sound films. Rees’ use of silent film in this context meant that we had to study facial expressions for meaning with no distraction from sub-titles. Silent film was always a great leveller for world cinema with pantomime an international language and title cards interchangeable: it still works.
The score from Peng and Middleton brought the audience even closer with the former playing a variety of traditional instruments - Erhu (two-stringed Chinese violin), Guzheng (Chinese zither) and Xun (wind instrument) – and the latter on piano, electronics and an obscure western six-stringed device called a guitar.
This mix of classical and modern reflects the film’s concern with the strangeness of ultra-modern urbanisation and its impact on individuals who are often shown in close up, dwarfed by the glass monoliths surrounding them with aggressive angularity.
It opens with three figures approaching a massive edifice of artificially-lit tower blocks: “at last, the city” one of them says. We see the three riding through the neon streets – youngsters from the country, sucking in every detail of this new environment, their faces ablaze.
The three are Han (Bin Ba), Ling (Lily Guo) and Bo (Nick Ma) and they are here to make a living and, perhaps, to find themselves. They arrive at their tiny one-room apartment and roll out their meagre possessions – tomorrow they will find work.
Rees has a keen eye for detail throughout and the lives of those in what is little more than a brick-built shanty town are shown in detailed juxtaposition with the new city – toddlers wandering across the dusty roads as huge lorries pass by, a community of small-holders huddled together for food and company against the backdrop of anti-septic immensity.
|A dangerous place|
The following day, Bo is greeted by a neighbour who works on a building site and follows him to find work shovel in hand. Han spots a woman collecting plastic bottles and starts to do the same being paid a pittance for the effort whilst Ling gets work as a waitress.
Small beginnings but they are off the mark.
|Nick Ma and Bin Ba|
Ambitions slowly reveal themselves. Han eyes an attractive girl handing out leaflets in front of an office complex - he catches her eye but she won’t go for lunch with a waste collector. Bo loves Ling but doesn’t have the confidence to let her know whilst she longs to be a singer.
Han plays the lottery – the get-rich-now long-shot of every advanced society and fortune of a kind is on its way as Bo’s workmate dies in his sleep and the boys find a wad of cash hidden in his shorts: the meagre rewards of a life in the city. There’s a picture of the man and his sister in the room – Han hides it and any sense of duty to the living person in the picture.
|Bright lights, really big city|
Han tells Bo that they mustn’t tell Ling and he concocts the lie that he has won the lottery. They have money now and begin to spend it, especially Han who can now impress the girl with a motorised scooter.
|Ling sings in the Lily Bar|
Ling gets a job singing in a bar wearing the white wig familiar from the film’s flyers (I have quite a collection of those as Mr Rees has been tireless in promoting Dust at other silent film events!) and things are looking up. But can the trio truly escape the consequences of their combined culpability and will the city claim them…?
Dust was a thoroughly immersive hour and a half with lovely performances from the three leads and a simple story well told by the director. Gareth even turned up as a tourist who photographs Han retrieving his water bottle from a rubbish bin.
|A lovely sequence as the figure walks off, blurring into the lights...|
Interestingly, a large proportion of audience responses indicate that people haven’t been to see a silent film with live accompaniment before: Written in Dust is therefore achieving the remarkable feet of introducing new audiences to an old form done in modern style. It’s what the film is all about and so gratifying it must be to see this impact on the cinema-goers.
Dust deserves more attention and another tour. Watch the film’s website for more details and its social media channels on Twitter and Facebook. There are trailers on YouTube from which I appropriated the above images (sorry!)... but, such a lovely film, I would like to watch it again.