J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Slamdance ’16: Water Ghost (short)

The stretch of the Yuanjiang River that bisects Changde is not as notorious as the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, but it has enough suicides to employ a specialized body fisher. After witnessing one such unfortunate tragedy from a distance Wen Li followed a compulsion to find the body fisher in her meditative short documentary Water Ghost (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

The body fisher is not an urban legend. He really exists, but the nature of his work makes him a somewhat averse to publicity. He is a private contractor who receives no government compensation. It is the grieving families that hire his services, so obviously the negotiations for each job are an awkward process. Naturally, there are specialized techniques to his work that few wish to learn. For either social or superstitious reasons, the body fisher has no competition to speak of.

Yet, the body fisher is a salt-of-the-earth working man, who quickly warms to Wen Li (his wife, maybe not so much). She also seems to relate to him quite easily, partly through a shared awareness of the related folklore and partly as a result of her own sad family history.

After quietly observing the body fisher at work, she drastically switches gears, chronicling the sad events of her father’s death through shadow puppetry. Visually, these sequences are absolutely arresting. In fact, the starkness of her images are well suited to the acute tragedy of her tale.

Although Water Ghost is a highly personal film, it is also deeply thoughtful. Wen Li seamlessly and thoroughly intertwines her family history with traditional archetypes and gritty, socially conscious reportage. It is a beautiful film, in a darkly elegiac way. Highly recommended for those who follow Chinese language cinema, Water Ghost screens at the upcoming Cinequest following its North American premiere at this year’s Slamdance.

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