The dragonfly has 28,000 eyes, and blinks 40,000 times a second. Dragonfly is also Qing Ting, the protagonist of renowned visual artist Xu Bing’s first feature, Qing Ting zhi yan (Dragonfly Eyes), which was inspired by a fake news story that went viral. When we are first introduced to Qing Ting, this plain-looking, sensitive woman is training to be a Buddhist nun, but changes in the temple lead her to the outside world, where she takes a job at a cow farm, one faceless worker amongst hundreds. There she meets Ke Fan, who sees her uniqueness, and their destiny as fated. She disagrees, and their relationship takes a number of detours, ending up with Ke Fan in jail, and Qing Ting with a new face and a new name because in today’s society you need to change your mind or change your appearance to succeed.
Straightforward social critique, right? Now imagine this story told entirely using surveillance camera material, compiled from 10,000 hours of footage culled from the internet cloud, with all the dialogue scripted and post-synced. Imagine a movie without conscious actors, its fast-paced narrative constructed from unrelated moments of captured and logged reality, alternately banal and frightening—an editing tour de force. Inspired by The Truman Show and 1984, Xu Bing has made a work of art only made possible by the present-day panopticon of China, where the boundaries between private and public have disintegrated. Qing Ting zhi yan forces viewers to question their conception of reality, as Xu states: “Real life is far more absurd and illogical than any work of art or anything we could ever imagine.” Is this where the world, and the world of cinema, is heading?
By Mark Peranson