What you need to know
'Contact Prints of Baileng Canal,' a Taiwanese documentary screening until Mar. 10, is 80 minutes of quiet meditation.
"Contact Prints of Baileng Canal" (Yinyang Bailengzun / 印樣白冷圳) is playing on a loop as part of the "Post-Nature" exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum through Mar. 10.
An art museum may seem like an unusual place to see a film, but then again, this isn't just another film.
Baileng Canal, a manmade tributary of the Dajia River in Taichung County, Taiwan, was built by the Japanese colonial government in 1927 in what was a huge undertaking at the time. This 80-minute documentary, written, directed, shot, and edited by Huang Hsin-yao (黃信堯) (known in the West for "The Great Buddha+" (Dafo Pulasi / 大佛普拉斯 2017), follows the Dajia, the canal, and the terminal uses of the canal's water using a mostly unbroken series of static shots (and the occasional pan), sans score or exposition. The largely voiceless film is meditative and beautiful. Only one scene, of four women harvesting cultivated mushrooms, has the sound of human voice; in another we hear a barking dog.
The film starts off in the mountain mists, before presenting the first of eight postcard-length poems addressed to the eponymous waterway; the title of each section hints at an underlying thematic organization, but some (1. Departure, 2. Chance Encounter, 5. Expedition, 8. Long After) are more explicable than others (3. Rest, 4. Confusion, 6. Unfinished, 7. Reunion). The film's title, 'Contact Prints', refers to these postcard intertitles, but can also be taken as a pun: The photons of each idyllic shot are imprinted onto the (digital) film, and when reflected off the projection screen form prints on our retinas, too.
Departure begins at the source of the Dajia and passes through two of its five hydroelectric dams. Chance Encounter brings us to the Baileng proper, and Long After hints at a river mouth processing plant. Every shot demonstrates deep reflection and search for harmony, and Huang makes great use of telephoto lens from high or far places. The cinematography is crisp and detailed, granting a hypnotic beauty to ripples in water and sun-speckled leaves. But even before breaking off from the Dajia, the film makes sure to depict the human uses of the water: irrigation, cleaning, drinking, washing, siphoning off, and some portentous shots of turbine generators. Expedition even follows the irrigated produce as it's harvested and sent to markets in Taipei. It should surprise no one that the water seems to get dirtier the farther it goes, and throughout the film we see only one person making any effort to clean it – with a net, like cleaning a swimming pool.
There's an argument here regarding the surrounding communities' relation to the waterway, especially considering that the theme of the Post-Nature exhibition is to explore how nature is not a pristine, isolated existence, but rather fully entangled with artificial environments and human society.
After leaving the source of the Dajia, the film rarely presents an image of the waterway devoid of human influence, and human craftsmanship is inherent in the very idea of a canal, which in turn has shaped its natural surroundings. The film's implied narrative following the water from source to use and product afterlife staves off the inevitable boredom that plagues even the most astonishing of images when presented in uninterrupted series, as evidenced by Terrence Malick's inimitable "Voyage of Time: Life's Journey" (2016).
But beyond the intellectual and aesthetic aspects, what impressed me the most is the sheer ingenuity behind the canal's construction. The water goes under tunnels, over bridges in pipes, over stone aqueducts (some of which are paved roads), and at one point is siphoned in its entirety through an extremely long pipe up and over a mountain crest (portrayed with one of the handful of panning shots). Such a feat of engineering deserves exactly this kind of documentary treatment.
Finally, the unique venue is an integral part of the viewing experience. Ensconced in a blacked-out room on the second floor, the screen fits one wall perfectly, so that you may not notice the relatively wide 2.2:1 aspect ratio. Opposite are two wooden benches, but if the front bench is full, you may want to find a spot on the carpeted floor as the back bench is not raised and will thus have a blocked view. The flawless sound fills the room, but the sound of chattering birdcall from a nearby exhibit can be clearly heard; whether that adds to or detracts from the filmgoing experience depends on the viewer.
"Contact Prints" is an intensely local film that premiered last year at one of the smaller festivals, so it may be hard to find after Mar. 10.
If you go, be sure to catch the exhibition's other film offerings, all documentaries: "Wild Relatives" (2018), Ursula Biemann's short "Acoustic Ocean" (2018), and three decades of Taiwanese documentaries by Ke Chin-yuan (柯金源).
Aside from these cinematic gems, the "Post-Nature" exhibition overall is remarkable for broaching its theme of the natural integrated with the artificial in not only its works but also its presentation: Every nook and cranny of the exhibition space is utilized to present objects and records of activities in which, like in "Contact Prints," nature and humanity are inseparable. It's well worth a visit.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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