Written in Dust, Theatre Review

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Review of Written in Dust, (Hui Chen) directed by Gareth Rees

A silent tragedy of modern times: Friends. Love. Money. Lies. Death. Hope.

Djanogly Theatre, The Lakeside, Nottingham, Thursday 23rd January 2014

Hats off to indie film maker Gareth Rees for his vignette silent film about migrant workers in contemporary Beijing!

My head full of a dichotomy of images and sounds after the performance, I could not wait to get home and write this review.

It takes some vision and guts for a “lao wai” film maker with no Chinese and zero budget to make a film in China, but this is just what Rees has done and pulled it off.

Written in Dust is a silent film performed with a live music interpretation from classically trained Ling Peng on the erhu and qin, and electronic sounds from DJ Kamal Joory.  It tells the age old tragic tale of young rural migrants seeking a new life in the big city.

In the age of block buster films and standardized video and music streaming, Director Gareth Rees wants to create a unique film performance that people have to come out to experience.  He refuses to direct his musicians, giving them the silent film a few weeks before the performance and letting them come up with their musical interpretation.  The show is very much a live concert with Ling Peng and Kamal Joory quite literally breathing life into the film.

Joory’s raucous electronic themes illustrate Ree’s shots of the deracinated young migrants lost among the futuristic glass facades, buildings, cars and lights of new Beijing. The characters aspire to the shopping mall, bar, coffee shop and high rise apartment dream of modernity, but live in the hutongs amongst the rubble of old buildings demolished in the run up to the Olympics.

By contrast Ling Peng’s er hu and qin portray the inner voice of the characters.  The moment she started singing Deng Li Chu’s famous song “The Moon tells my heart/Yueliang Daibiao wo de Xin” to express the hopes and dreams of the female migrant working in a bar, was heart breaking.

Rees has a keen eye, creating beautiful and poignant visual landscapes for his characters to inhabit.  He juxtaposes the modern and the traditional.  Scenes in glitzy post modern public squares with fountains, neon lights and malls run into snap shot visions that hark back to classical Chinese paintings. At one point the three characters sit on top of a big rock in a park eating ice creams, in another shot the girl sits fishing by the canal, her rod angled as a counterpoint to the huge cranes in the background.

I applaud Rees for his attention to detail; smiling as two workers set off for work on a Flying Pigeon bicycle, the passenger apparently effortlessly balancing himself on the back of the bike while carrying a spade, holding my breath with the characters as they squat or sit on bricks counting wodges of cash.  There is joy too, in the freshness of the faces of the actors and the people around them in parks and streets, for none of them are polished big names with long legs, stunning hair and perfect teeth.

If there is criticism it would be that perhaps the characters have too much personal space, the poverty is sanitized and the air too clean.  There were a couple of moments where I briefly fell out of the story, but I suspect this is a problem with character development in a zero budget 80 minute film.

At a time when so much China related art is bleak and negative, I enjoyed the ending which promised hope in common humanity despite the Chinese style “wild west frontier” style capitalism and unforgiving frenetic pace of change.

The show has Arts Council funding and will be going on tour. Go watch and listen!

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of a China historical novel The Woman The Woman Who Lost China CoverWho Lost China. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspectives and an focus on cultural and historical fault lines.