Thursday, 28 April 2016

"See the world without ever leaving Beijing"

Somewhere in Beijing it's the middle of the night. Two performers at a theme park of global landmarks sit together in a shabby break room and drink, their faces illuminated and their shadows projected onto the crumbling wall beside them by the yellowed lamp-light. Tao, Chinese but almost certainly not from the city, pours, while Anna, a Russian who only speaks Russian, sits down opposite her. They talk but don’t listen. They can’t listen. Tao can’t comprehend Anna’s words, and vice-versa. Only names and places, words outside of language. But gestures, like raising a glass for a toast to invite the other to do the same, or repeating the words to a song quietly to invite the other to sing them too, speak volumes. They’re close. They’re friends without the luxury, or the burden, of speech. But Anna has to speak. She has a new job and is leaving, moving to a new home in a new city. She can’t communicate this with gestures, but nor can she with words; Tao does not understand that her friend will soon be gone. They sing together. One of them hurts more than the other.

Then, moments later, seconds, hours, weeks, indefinable in a city of time zones, of no time, Tao is finally, if not truly, alone, sat next to Anna, her closest friend, for the last time, in the back of a pedicab, or an open-top taxi, or something like it, exposed to the cold night air as she is driven out of the world, away from the bunk-bedded dorms, away from the communal bathrooms, away from the spaceless community designed more for the spread of disease than for love, and into the city, or at least past it, beyond it, its illuminated skyline visible in the distance behind her, translucent through a row of trees and separated from the road by a river. She feels the wind on her face and in her hair. She breathes oxygen. She barely moves, facing everywhere but where she came from, but never quite Beijing. Anna faces nothing but Tao, savouring her face, trying not to betray the anguish on her own. This could be the last time they ever see each other. The driver, neither young or old, and perhaps not even the driver, sits barely a metre in front of them, but it may as well be miles. He is present and peripheral. Incommunicable like Anna. Stoic like Tao. Alone like everyone else.

This road leads nowhere. There is no start point. There is no destination. Just the road. Just the wind. Just the pain of being lonely together, of sharing spaces, lives, air with strangers. The pain of not knowing it’ll all be over soon. Just the silence. Just the gentle sound of pedals and gears propelling three tyres and three people over tarmac. Music pierces the scene, but not for them. Only for us. Jia's camera follows alongside in a vehicle of its own, aimed at Tao but briefly drifting. Perhaps it’s aimed at Anna. Suddenly we accelerate and leave the trio behind. The absence is sudden, painful, hard to believe. Anna is gone, and Tao is now finally, unkowningly, painfully alone.

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