The “intensification of nervous stimulation” in documentaries of the cities of China and Taiwan

Two new documentaries suggest the rapid urbanization of Chinese and Taiwanese cities may not be orderly:

Armed with newly available digital video equipment, independent documentarians have given Chinese filmmaking a genuine vanguard. “Disorder” is among the most disjunctive and disturbing of recent exposés. The movie’s first image shows a broken water main gushing like Old Faithful in the midst of a busy thoroughfare. The second shot frames a pedestrian beneath a car, the apparent victim of a traffic accident. Later he is seen — still lying in the street — bargaining for a payoff with the driver who struck him…

For 58 minutes, “Disorder” bombards the viewer with interwoven bulletins, presented without comment. Many are grotesque human-interest stories: Shops peddle illegal bear paws; escaped pigs roam the highway; a cockroach emerges from a bowl of noodles. One man brandishes what looks like a live crocodile, another washes himself in a polluted tributary of the Pearl River. Other sequences are more violent recordings of arguments and breakdowns. Civilians brawl with the police, and the movie ends with a remarkable sequence of cops beating a man nearly to death…

Most scenes are a single shot, without causal links to what precedes or may follow. Chronology is obscure; so is motivation. “Stray Dogs” won the grand jury prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, and given its radical near-absence of narrative, the movie has been a polarizing work. Some critics, including Stephen Holden, who reviewed “Stray Dogs” in The New York Times when it opened here last September, see it as akin to a gallery film installation. Others have noted that Mr. Tsai’s emphasis on activities shown in real time is suggestive of performance art…

Like other films by Mr. Tsai, it has a postapocalyptic feel. Torrential rain is virtually constant, and Taipei feels depopulated — a place where events, mostly concerning food and shelter, may be staged in situ. The aesthetic tension between Mr. Tsai’s beautifully lit and framed compositions and the desolation of his characters’ lives is disconcerting. They do not live in the metropolis so much as haunt its ruins.

The reviewer links the films to the thoughts of Georg Simmel in “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel argued the individual would be overwhelmed in the modern city since there are too many things going on. To fight back, the individual would need to adopt a blase attitude. Perhaps, then, we can see these documentaries as attempts to gain some distance from the chaos of the urbanizing megacity. At the same time, modern film seems particularly well-suited to hinting at Simmel’s predictions given the prominence and frequent use of rapid cuts or non-traditional narratives (i.e., non-linear).

Of course, documentaries don’t have to be made this way. Indeed, it would be interesting to contrast these two with films that show the mundane and sequential features of modern life in a big city: going places, working low-skill and/or repetitive jobs, shopping or searching for necessities, child care, sleeping. Alas, these might not lend themselves as well to screens that want pretty rapid takes on what life looks like.

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