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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2019

GoCritic! Review: The Fading Village

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- A Chinese meditation on disappearing ways of living in the age of increasing urbanisation

GoCritic! Review: The Fading Village

This year’s Karlovy Vary Documentary Competition started off strongly with a world premiere of Fei-fang Liu's impressive The Fading Village. At times challenging with its 172 minutes duration, the film will struggle to find an audience outside the festival circuit. But its dynamic and nuanced observational approach nevertheless make for a rewarding and worthwhile cinematic experience.

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Junli Hou, 35, is the youngest person living in his mountain village in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi, an area where goat-herds and farmers still preserve traditions of bygone times. Structurally somewhat similar to Kim Ki-duk’s acclaimed Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), this calmly-paced documentary gradually moves through the four seasons: the village's elderly inhabitants deal with hardships of persistent money problems and severed family ties. Increasing urbanisation has led their children, seeking a more prosperous life, to leave for cities; the consequence is that the village and its dilapidated houses exude an air desertion.

The Fading Village, which stands out for its stunning cinematography, opens with extreme wide shots of the green hills, surrounded by meadows, forests, lakes, and misty clouds that speak to the high altitude of the place. This area shows almost no signs of civilisation, yet as the camera moves closer, switching from panoramic views of nature to a hand-held “fly on the wall” observation of a forlorn settlement, it becomes clear that the region, while cherished by octogenarian locals, is far from an idyllic place to live.

Residing in shabby houses, some of which collapse as soon as heavy autumn rain hits, their life revolves around raising goats, making cashmere and cultivating the land, mostly with their bare hands. This leaves younger people longing for more – including the only “youngster” among the elderly, Hou, who plunges into a gambling addiction and brings a considerable shame to the family; this development could be considered the dramatic peak in an otherwise very steadily-paced film.

As the film progresses through bleak winter days towards the festivities of Spring Festival, the depiction of village life becomes somewhat repetitive. Nevertheless, Liu manages to keep things interesting as he punctuates the narrative with snippets of city life, where the young generation of villagers are making their way.

The contrast between the two worlds gives an interesting insight into the growing gap between China’s chaotic, developing cities and peaceful, yet decaying villages, as the film’s astonishing visuals and audio design delicately point out. Sounds of animals and the wind fill the scenic mountain views, filled with clear misty air, all of which are then suddenly replaced with noises of loud traffic, mechanised public announcements, neon lights and views of majestic buildings, covered in smog, as the focus moves to the city.

It is established that only the first generation of young villagers who left their homes in search of a sustainable wage really miss their birthplace. Their children, already socialised into city life, dread the days when they must visit their grandparents in the mountains. In their own words: “There’s not enough signal and too much goat dung.”

The film was shot between spring 2016 and 2017; many of the villagers portrayed have since passed away, leaving this centuries-old village that, once home to over four hundred, with a mere fifteen inhabitants. The Fading Village is thus an anthropological observation of a place that is indeed steadily disappearing and will probably soon cease to exist, existing only as a distant memory among its descendants and via Liu's indelible film.

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