What happens when a dispassionate dominatrix, a failed real-estate agent and a pair of teenage security guards come together at a Beijing apartment complex?
The answer—believe it or not—is a zombie apocalypse the likes of which you’ve never seen before.
This strange plot is at the heart of Haze and Fog, a docu-drama directed by Cao Fei, screening at this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival. The hour-long film questions the very nature of the documentary genre, using absurdist elements to chronicle the experience of China’s urban middle class.
“My work can fit into different categories, but I think documentaries already crossed the border into art,” Cao tells the Straight during a Skype call from Beijing.
Cao began her career as a traditional documentarian but eventually moved into making more challenging pieces. Now she pushes the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. In Haze and Fog she uses zombies, a mysterious peacock, and dancing real-estate agents to suggest her perception of everyday life in modern China.
“In China the magical comes to real life,” says the Beijing-based artist, who is originally from the southern city of Guangzhou. According to Cao, nowhere is this intrusion of the uncanny into real life more evident than in cities like Beijing, which she calls “magical metropolises.”
As a city in constant flux, Beijing is a place where, Cao suggests, reality itself can’t be easily defined. This provides a constant theme to Haze and Fog, which persistently asks the viewer to consider where the line between the real and the fictive resides. The smoggy skies and a tango playing in the background only intensify the movie’s spell.
“The haze of Beijing makes me think of the haze in people’s lives,” Cao says. Indeed, the characters in Haze and Fog appear to be unable (or unwilling) to define themselves, and rarely speak to each other. An overwhelming sense of isolation permeates the film.
Haze and Fog comes to this year’s festival as part of a five-film series called Wild Grass: New Chinese Images. The name is taken from a popular image in Chinese literature, which highlights the virtues of wild grass, an unglamorous yet resilient plant that survives in the harshest of environments.
In Haze and Fog, the urban middle class plays the metaphorical role of the wild grass—eking out a sad existence in their bleakly phantasmagoric environment. According to Cao, growing class divisions and the westernization of Chinese identity foster this surreal habitat.
“The whole system, life and country, is being distorted,” she says, adding that this distortion is changing the way in which people relate to each other and the world around them. Ultimately, she argues, isolation is what fuels the zombie apocalypse depicted in the movie.
“The film wants to discuss that the people, even before they turn into zombies, are walking dead,” Cao says.
Haze and Fog screens at the Vancity Theatre on Tuesday (May 5). More info on the Wild Grass series here