A couple of nights ago, the Michigan Theater showed Xu Bing’s “Dragonfly Eyes,” the prominent Chinese filmmaker’s latest work. The film is constructed entirely from Chinese surveillance footage, with a storyline fashioned by Bing himself. Using 20 computers, each downloading content for 24 hours a day and seven days a week, Bing and his team sifted through hundreds of hours of footage to construct the film.
The film itself follows Bing’s story of Qing Ting and Ke Fan. Ke Fan quickly becomes infatuated with Qing Ting after meeting her through work. Ke Fan exhibits concerning and problematic behavior as a result of his obsession with Qing Ting, even assaulting a group of individuals that insulted her appearance. Upon his release from jail, Ke Fan is convinced that Qing Ting had undergone plastic surgery and became a famous Internet personality. After this Internet personality is reported missing, Ke Fan undergoes plastic surgery himself to look identical to Qing Ting and effectively replace her.
Though creative in its cinematography, “Dragonfly Eyes” presents a blurred sequence of events that leaves the audience’s questions about the disturbing storyline unanswered — perhaps for good reason. The scrambled and seemingly random selection of surveillance to build Bing’s story from represents the prevalence of those characteristics in the modern age in which the story takes place. The film opens with surveillance footage of a lone woman falling into a pond and apparently drowning. This disturbing clip set a horror-movie type of tone that was relatively inconsistent throughout the remainder of the film.
This isn’t to say that the film in its entirety was not chilling. There are a number of points during the showing in which I found myself biting my nails with anxiety. Bing includes a multitude of dashboard-camera segments of car crashes and close-calls in addition to several recordings of buildings collapsing in on themselves. However, the central storyline presents itself as a break from these instances of horror and tragedy, rather than the purpose of the film’s creation.
In the same vein, the suspenseful, intense recordings of car wrecks and collapsing buildings seem as though they were chosen at random, selected for their disturbing content rather than their relevance to the storyline. The erratic and disturbing nature of Xu Bing’s fabricated storyline in combination with the random inclusion of dashboard-camera recordings renders the film difficult to comprehend, perhaps for a greater reason. The complex and scrambled compilation of storyline and unsettling images are used to evoke a sense of disorder in the world.
As the audience tries to make sense of the winding chapters of Ke Fan’s life, that line of reasoning is constantly interrupted with images that demand our full attention. Amid the chaos of tragedies and disasters, the story of Qing Ting and Ke Fan becomes blurred and exponentially more complicated. Despite the extraneousness of their story, it mimics the idea that every “personal storyline” becomes blurred and complicated within the goings-on of any such surrounding environment.