[Editor’s Note: Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is partnering with the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) to highlight the films in IFFR’s prestigious VPRO Tiger Awards competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers). A weeklong series, encompassing 15 films, as well as a “shorts” program, Rotterdam @ BAM gives New Yorkers (and New York’s close neighbors) an unprecedented opportunity to take a look at these award-winning films from all over the world.]
A boy with bleached blonde hair sits by a slow-moving green river. His back is to the camera. He has no shirt on, and his torso is covered with swooping, dramatic tattoos. In the foreground on a rock is an overturned blue-glass bottle. The opposite shore is lush and green. The boy is still. He stares at the water. Sometimes he gets up and throws rocks into the current. His energy is idle. The camera never changes position. There are zero cuts. The scene goes on for perhaps 10 minutes in this manner. Near the end, slowly, a straw scarecrow floats by in the river, entering the screen from the left-hand side and floating into view. The boy notices it and slowly wades in to drag it out onto the rocks.
This is the opening scene in Yang Heng’s Sun Spots, his second feature (after the award-winning Betelnut). It is a captivating and (at times) maddening film, with an insistent pace. Insistent in the way that glaciers are insistent. Each scene is a self-contained unit, with no inner cuts, and the camera doesn’t move at all within said scene. Most of it is in long shot. Action, when it does happen, comes from frame-left or -right, in the foreground or background. The opening scene, where virtually nothing happens until the very end (and even then, all that happens is the appearance of a drowned scarecrow), prepared me to slow down my expectations, to take in each long shot as I would a giant mural in a museum, my eye roving slowly from left to right and back. Once I realized that I had time, as a viewer, to do that, that the film did not have a conventional pace, I was able to drink in the extraordinary sights presented to me. Sun Spots is a film to receive.
With startling and memorable beauty, Sun Spots blends HD imagery with a slow sense of creeping terror, the terror that comes from silence, stillness and quiet. The scenes are so static on the surface that they begin to pulse with horrible anticipation. Tian Li, the blonde-haired boy, is a gangster and a hit man. He lives in a rundown cottage in the middle of a giant field with a pathetic lush of a father. Tian Li embodies stillness, but there is a coiled energy to him. He moves deliberately, yet casually, with grace. He is watchful.
Meanwhile, a young woman has had a horrible breakup with her boyfriend, and she and Tian Li begin a sort of relationship. All of this is presented with almost no dialogue. Sun Spots portrays a world where silent understanding and an acceptance of subterranean currents is the basis of all relationships. Tian Li brings a bed out into the middle of the field and drapes a clear plastic tent over it. The girl lies in the bed at dusk, a dim lantern hanging above her.
Each shot in Sun Spots (and there are no more than 20, to give you an idea of the overall pace) is a work of art. Each scene took my breath away. The images here have great reverb, a kind of absurdity that approaches poetry, reminding me of Fellini. The world here is not realistic. The bed, seen far in the distance, under its pale tent, swathed in fog, the mountains towering behind with black-sketched trees along the slopes, becomes something out of a dark fairytale.
Tian Li’s potential for violence (he stabs his victims) is understood, although all of his killings occur beyond the static frame, adding to the disturbing effect. You know what he is capable of, yet when he is in the frame, he is gentle and solicitous with his girl, silently patient with his trashed father, and responsible in how he takes care of people.
Sun Spots is maddening because of its refusal to move, but I have to say that that is why it is so powerful. I got used to the long still shots, the complete lack of close-ups (I could not pick out Tian Li or his girlfriend in a lineup), and the overwhelming silence that penetrates the mostly wordless film, a silence broken only by the sound of birds or the rushing river. It all becomes truly eerie when placed in the context of Tian Li’s killings-for-hire.
Once I submitted (and Sun Spots requires that you submit), I found the film terrifying and effective. It stayed with me.