Qing Ting (Liu Yongfang) is a young Chinese woman who leaves the security of a Buddhist temple for a job in a large-scale dairy farm. It is there she meets Ke Fan (Su Shangqing), a rebellious and angry young man. After Ting loses her next job by being rude to an aggressive customer, Fan violently takes matters into his own hands.
The interesting aspect of Dragonfly Eyes is not its story, which only gets sillier and more melodramatic from what I have described. What is fascinating is the way the film is put together. Liu Yongfang and Su Shangqing only play the voices of Ting and Fan. For the visuals, artist-turned-filmmaker Xu Bing went straight to the Internet. With a team of assistants, he sifted through more than 10,000 hours of video. All of it was captured by surveillance and streaming cameras. He took real-life scenes from streets and parks, apartment and store lobbies, and car dashcams, and assembled them into a narrative collage.
On a conceptual level it is tremendous. It is not surprising to read that the process took Xu a couple of years to complete. That he completed a narrative film out of all the disparate clips is cause for acclaim. If there was a prize of best experimental feature concept, Dragonfly Eyes would absolutely be a front-runner. Sadly, film prizes tend to award the execution rather than the concept, and it disappointing to find that as a piece of watchable cinema Dragonfly Eyes fails to convince.
The story is fairly risible. As it progresses, it does seem to raise issues over privacy, celebrity and identity. In practice those issues come across as muddled and under-developed. There is a strong sense Xu wants to make a social statement with his film, but it is never entirely clear what that statement is supposed to be. Over the course of reviewing all those thousands of hours of online video, Xu and his team came across some remarkable moments: lightning strikes, landslides, flash floods, car crashes, and the like. They all get inserted into the film in scattershot fashion. In some cases, the juxtaposition is striking, and resonates with the emotional turmoil of the characters. In other cases, these clips feel wildly out of place and – given that several clearly feature people dying or getting seriously injured – genuinely irresponsible.
When the film works, whether in a particular edit or the use of a specific piece of video, it suddenly pops off the screen and makes an impressive impact. Those moments are too sparsely distributed through the film. For the bulk of its running time, the viewer is left watching a ridiculous story played out with underwhelming voice-overs and a curious format where characters will change face from shot to shot for more than an hour.
Arthouse viewers will potentially love it: as noted earlier, on a conceptual level alone this is an inventive and fascinating piece of work. As an actual narrative work, it’s terribly dull.
This review was originally published at FilmInk.