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Dragonfly Eyes

[…] With the natural documentary tool of surveillance cameras, Xu Bing builds a fictional layer – the love story – that functions as a vehicle for returning to a documentary intention loaded with social criticism.

[…] It is incredible how quickly our “classical” cinematic perception installs itself in spite of the queer source of images we are presented with.

For many years Xu Bing has wanted to create a movie exclusively using surveillance cameras. This is the first thing he tells us himself in his Qing Ting zhi yan (Dragonfly Eyes), thus setting the unavoidable distance from the image we get with surveillance cameras through his own presence in the. Actually, the theme of surveillance cameras has a very long and rich cinematic history, but it seems that no one has ever really dared to create a film that is entirely shot through surveillance cameras. Moreover, quite interesting is the fact that Xu Bing apparently used only found footage; footage found on the internet. In a way, we could say that the film, along with many other films, are potentially already there on the internet. It is our voyeurism and our imagination that can realize the films in the end.

The idea behind and the format of Qing Ting zhi yan are highly intriguing. But what does Xu Bing effectively do with this idea and format? He tells us a love story. At first glance, this can seem deceiving, but of course we should highlight Xu Bing’s virtuosity in showing how through a (controversially) public device we can track one of the most private things like a love story. More than to critically reflect on the potentialities of the social control of surveillance cameras, the filmmaker seems to want to astonish us with the scary powers of this device.

Actually, we can quickly see how the love story appears as a ruse for him to depict the different aspects of Chinese daily life. Qing Ting zhi yan provides a perfect occasion to shed light on the problems of Chinese society through the difficulties our two heroes find on their paths. With the natural documentary tool of surveillance cameras, Xu Bing builds a fictional layer – the love story – that functions as a vehicle for returning to a documentary intention loaded with social criticism. The choice of images and the editing are so explicitly devoted to this intention that we are often given the impression that the film becomes somehow didactic or even moralistic.

One of the positive aspects of the film is that the filmmaker does not try to recreate the illusionist dispositive typical of classical cinema. The voices are clearly voice-overs, with a monotonous and unchanged tonality. We should keep our distance then from any over-identification in the story. Yet, the experience of the perception I had throughout the film has proved the opposite. It is incredible how quickly our “classical” cinematic perception installs itself in spite of the queer source of images we are presented with. In the last part of the film we almost forget the obstacles that the medium presents – the poor quality of the images and the artificial “dubbing” of the voices – and we find ourselves completely immersed in the story (probably also through the familiarity that we have with surveillance camera images in our daily lives…). This experience pushes us back to the love story and pushes us away from a critical reflection on the role of surveillance cameras.

However, Qing Ting zhi yan is an experiment that cannot be neglected as it gives us the occasion to reflect on the growing presence and use of surveillance cameras and, moreover, it provides a special cinematic experience that raises questions about the kind of distinction we make do between fiction and reality.

Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: August 14, 2017

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