Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/13 & 10/16
World premiere: 23 August, 2013, MontrΓ©al World Film Festival

The Blinding Sunlight, the directorial debut of Chinese filmmaker Yu Liu, wastes no time in setting up its aesthetics and its themes alike: the opening shot is in the backseat of a cramped vehicle looking through the windshield (soon enough, we'll learn that it's a motorcycle altered to have a wide, enclosed space for passengers), and it is very consciously artless, if you follow me, filthy, harshly-lit, cramped framing. The soundtrack is dominated by two things: over-emphasised street noises in the background, and a Party official speaking on the radio about the government's plans to encourage pay equality and fuller employment, using the most banal and non-commital phrases and proving that bureaucratic doubletalk is the same in all cultures.

So here's what we know, all in the first minute; The Blinding Sunlight is going to boast the kind of grotty production values that since the 1940s have always and only been used to connote bitter, earnest realism; and if it wasn't obvious enough from that (since "realist" films have an overwhelming tendency to circle around economic stories), The Blinding Sunlight will be telling a tale of how government policies designed to protect the poor end up being so vague and institutionally impersonal that the end up frustrating the exact people they're meant to protect. And lo, this is what turns out to be the case.

The particular man at the center of this story of crushing the poor and worsening their lot is Li (Liu Chunqi, I think; I didn't take great notes of the credits, and good information about the film online is hard as hell to find), the middle member of a tri-generational domestic situation, and the owner of that motorcycle, which he operates - illegally, we must note, and in full awareness that what he's doing is illegal - as a taxi. This gives him just barely enough money to augment the unemployment he receives from the government, delivered in the form of unsmiling case workers who hold the threat of cutting off his dole money if he doesn't drop the taxi service like a loaded gun. Living with Li are his aging father, who collects trash for recycling, and his son, in the middle of an imploding school career and far more interested in hanging out with his dissolute friends and frequenting the local brothel than making any attempt to keep himself from descending into the same barely-sustained working class hell where his dad ended up.

Cheery stuff all around, really, and Yu doubles down by showcasing the broken-down neighborhood where the family lives in unblinking wide shots that emphasise just how dirty and run-down things are. And in case the shots of filthy alleys aren't enough, he and cinematographer Yang Ming desaturate several of the images, sometimes all the way down to pure greyscale, to leach the last hint of life and warmth out of the material. They also use an extremely limited number of set-ups (which might have been, originally, a labor and cost-saving idea, but it works thematically), with virtually every interior space filmed the same way every time we see it, so that the lack of variety, creativity, and freedom faced by this family every moment is beaten into our very faces, one last time.

I am torn. Not between "this is good" and "this is unrelievedly fucking depressing", though that's the case; realism is not, by its nature, a cheery style. No, I am torn between admiring the commitment and intensity with which Yu presents this grinding story and this miserable domestic hell, and thinking warmly of his passionate drive to make this project (in addition to directing, he's the writer, producer, and editor, and self-financed the whole thing), and reacting with stricken awe at the largely invisible-in-the-West side of China being revealed by this most fixedly documentarian story; and wishing that all of it were, y'know, good. However easy it is to admire Yu's energy, his aesthetic isn't terribly engaging, whether by design (the repeated shot set-ups, effective though they are, become awfully boring to watch), or because of newness and a lack of intuitive filmmaking ability. I think, for example, of a three-shot that is filmed in the most basic, flat way possible, a little above the characters' heads down to a little below their feet, like we never evolved past 1903. Some shots work, like any time that the blinding sunlight of the title gets to play a major part, washing out the frame and creating interesting silhouettes and shapes; mostly, though, the camera is being used to record activity, not shape it, and that's simply not good filmmaking, anyway you approach it.

The main problem, though, is the cast, which in the finest tradition of the genre is made up solely of non-professional actors. And Christ, is it obvious; even considering my longstanding impatience for this common gimmick, the actors in The Blinding Sunlight are unconvincing in the extreme, reading lines so stiffly that even a viewer without the tiniest understanding of any Chinese dialect, or any language at all outside of the Indo-European family can notice that something's off. Or enacting the single worst staged slap I have ever seen, and that's not the one where the actor fails to come within half a foot of his target's face, something so wildly off the mark that I'm inclined to generosity and assume that he was scripted to miss. However the setting and story work to create a unique impression of Chinese poverty, the cast ensures that we never regard the characters as humans, but only figures being posed in the locations, and that alone is enough to keep The Blinding Sunlight from registering as more than a noble curiosity.