Sometimes, when I walk into Walgreens or stand in the checkout line at Target, I glance at my image on the tiny surveillance monitor, a fuzzy pixelated version of myself, and give it a little wave. Most of us don’t even think about what happens to our images once we leave the store. But who is sitting on the other side of the screen?
I first heard about Dragonfly Eyes (2017) via Facebook. A quick Google search yields the synopsis: “A plain-faced woman leaves her training at a Buddhist temple to work on a dairy farm.” As if this summary was not interesting all on its own, more investigating led me to discover that this film is composed entirely of various clips of surveillance footage from all across the time and space of modern China to tell the fictional story of two doomed lovers, Qing Ting and Ke Fan.
Director Xu Bing writes, at the beginning of the film, that he has had the idea of creating this type of experimental film since 2013, and the release of tons of footage in 2015 allowed him to turn his dream into a reality. Dragonfly Eyes is not only a new type of artistic film, but a commentary on modern Chinese society. Clips of natural disasters, such as violent car crashes and toppling buildings, are layered with intimate clips of people going about their daily lives, from a woman munching on some toast while lying in bed to a man sitting shirtless in his room, gaze fixed on his computer screen.
The basic plot follows Qing Ting, a simple woman from a monastery, who leaves her safe haven to work at a dairy farm where she meets Ke Fan, a man who insists that she is different from all the other women he has ever met and pursues her with a sweet doggedness. The two of them become a couple, but Qing Ting refuses to give herself fully to him, insisting on paying for her own lifestyle and needs. After getting into trouble while trying to enact revenge on a rich woman who is responsible for getting Qing Ting fired from her job at the laundromat, Ke Fan is thrown into jail for several years. When he is released, he is consumed by the desperate drive to find his one true love, and he eventually succeeds, though she has transformed to become almost unrecognizable: Qing Ting was unable to find work with her plain face, so she underwent radical plastic surgery and became an internet star. The rest of the film follows his mad chase and his eventual spiral into a sort of madness. I will not spoil the ending, but it is definitely not what I was expecting. The creepiness and the horror aspects of the film creep up on you slowly, slow enough that they are almost casually normalized, and once the film ends you realize how deep the plot has dragged you into another frame of mind.
I will admit that at the beginning of the film I was a bit skeptical; being unable to pair a face to the character was frustrating, and made me feel disconnected from the plot. The random insertions of clips of natural disasters and fatalistic events also confused me.
However, as the plot progressed, the characters came into sharper focus. Perhaps this was the intention, to start from an expansive, general point of view, and to eventually narrow in, to zoom in, to focus like a camera lens, much like the nature of a surveillance camera searching for a certain person or object.
If there is one critique I would make, it is that I believe that the film could have been fine– better, even– without the repeated insertions of dramatically horrible events: drownings, burnings, crashes. I think that the more intimate clips of daily life in China were more impactful. In addition, some of the clips felt a bit exploitative, particularly the ones that showed very graphic scenes such as beatings and suicides. Either way, just knowing that these film clips are all real makes the film so much more impactful. I’m awed at the dedication and time it must have taken Xu Bing to sort through the hours and hours of footage.
Despite my skepticism and obliviousness upon the beginning of the film, Dragonfly Eyes has honestly become my favorite film of all time. I have never experienced anything like it, and I thought that the nature of the film, the way it had a creeping, slow-burn effect on the viewer, made it much more visceral and humanlike than anything else I have ever watched. I am convinced that Xu Bing is a sort of genius. If you ever have the chance to watch this film, I highly recommend that you do so.
Image Credit: Youtube