The premise behind director Huang Weikai‘s documentary Disorder makes it sound insufferably fussy. Amassing over 1,000 hours of footage from amateur filmmakers throughout China, Weikai whittled down the mountain of grainy black and white footage guided by the rule that, according to The Atlantic‘s Hua Hsu, no successive scenes could come from the same source tape. Disorder plays like a punch to the gut, a stunning and brutal attempt to capture China’s rapidly growing cityscapes and the flaccid realities behind its extraordinary development. If Jacques Tati‘s films gently poked and prodded at the folly of modern life, Weikai’s film lacerates them with a chainsaw.
The 58 minutes that comprise Disorder take place in or around Guangzhou, though specifics are never mentioned. One assumes the lack of context is meant to represent its universality: This could be anywhere. From mild inconvenience to jaw-dropping ineptitude, the viewer is assaulted with the casual chaos running through contemporary Chinese culture. Whether it’s being thrown into an ambulance or a stockpile of bear claws and live anteaters, each occurrence is more bizarre than the next. At one point, a Keystone-like firefighter bemoans a call to action since he “just ordered takeout.”
Over the past few years, American comedians have routinely milked feckless, dimwitted authority figures and their sheer ineptitude for hours of laughs. Watching a health inspector rattle off his pessimistic assessment of just how a cockroach found its way into a patron’s noodle soup, somehow his exasperation matches ours; horror slowly gives way to a sense of familiar bemusement. Quick cuts demonstrate Weikai’s playfulness. As grown men wrestle an out-of-control pig on a freeway, he shows the inherent madness has its lighter side. Mostly, though, his vision is haunting and severe. As the mentally ill dance in oncoming traffic or a baby is found in a heap of garbage, the hidden cost of progress becomes crystal clear.
Disorder screens Friday at 7 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art in the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Auditorium. Free. Auditorium opens 30 minutes early.