Film Scratches: Dancing with Trees – Lilong (2009)
Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
The title of Valentina Ferrandes’ 11 minute short Lilong refers to something conspicuously absent in the film itself. The notes for the film explain that a lilong is a type of housing complex formerly prevalent in Shanghai. These low-rise buildings had inner courtyards which allowed residents to form a rich social life and a sense of community. They are being replaced rapidly by extremely dense high-rise towers without much space for interaction.
The film depicts older residents of the city who now use a public park for t’ai chi and other traditional daily exercises. Formerly, they would have done these in the more social atmosphere of the lilong courtyard. The park is lush and green with subtropical plants, and the people in the film seem to be fairly isolated from one another, yet beautifully integrated with the natural environment.
Ferrandes has a magical and meditative way of showing this environment. The film begins with shots of the lush plants and trees which look as if they might be in a forest. When we see people, it is always just a fragment of a person emerging from between the trees: an arm, a torso, a pair of legs. The repetitive, flowing movements of the exercises make it look as if nymphs or spirits are emerging from the trees. These are not exercises that develop brute strength, like Western calisthenics, but they are meant to increase sensitivity and awareness, so their integration into the natural environment is intentional and beautiful. The film has no narration and the soundtrack is a mixture of wind, birds, and flowing water from the park.
At the film’s end we see wider and wider shots, gradually letting us see dense city, crowded with high-rise towers, an environment which creates great stress and isolation. The little park, seen from above, is the one place of quiet and beauty and is therefore of great importance, although it still engenders more isolation than the older courtyards did.
Ferrandes is an Italian filmmaker based in Berlin, and many of her films are concerned with urban design and its effects on social patterns. In Lilong, she has found a way to tell this story entirely with images, in a film which is both beautiful and insightful.