Credit: Lei Lei
by Esmé Holden Featured Film

That Day, On the River — Lei Lei [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 24, 2023

Images fade in and out, they flicker and repeat as metallic crashing and analog distortion echo from a distance. Lei Lei’s fragmentary short, That Day, on the River (2023), is held together by a conversation between he and his father, Lei Jiaqi — originally recorded during the production of Lei Lei’s feature, Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish — about Jiaqi’s childhood in 1950s China. But that, too, fades in and out, like a radio frequency half-received; as if it’s the memories that are flickering in and out, and sometimes they, like the screen, go totally to black.

The images here are degraded, but not in the same way as they are in Lei’s 2012 short, Recycled (a collage of personal photographs collected from a recycling plant on the outskirts of Beijing). These images are scratched and looped, and not to convey authenticity and age, but to draw attention to their analog qualities, making it hard to see their contents under the process used to create them. When a shot of a woman moves backwards and forwards, over and over again, it resembles clockwork, purely mechanical. Like all the identical photographs of people standing in front of the same landmarks in Recycled, it says more about its medium — in that case, the personal photograph — than anything within them; an image is mostly an extension of the camera.

Although they only connect to Jiaqi’s memories in an associative way, the images also speak to their abstraction from reality. They too are an extension of their medium: the process of remembering, the brain. They try to grasp back but can only reach things Jiaqi didn’t do — both sports and chess — and people who are long gone. Even in the shorter term, his memories conflict with Lei’s, who remembers retrieving an ID card (or was it a pass?) that he left behind. Jiaqi laughs, asking why he would have sent a child. The thing he remembers most concretely is a girl whose homework he sometimes copied, but she was, by the next time he returned to his hometown, already dead. Memories, like images, can do little to recapture the past; it’s less ashes to ashes than ashes to nothing at all.The thing that Lei remembers most clearly as his memories take over from his father’s — since the medium they’re being told through is his film — is a dream where he passed under a bridge and saw a blue spirit who looked like Jiaqi; the titular day on the river isn’t even a real day, exactly. But when that dream is recreated in strikingly digital drone footage, although it’s slightly stuttered and bathed in blue, it’s powerfully evocative. It’s too smooth to be real life, but it’s accurate to a dream. If images and film can’t meet history materially, through the outer world, maybe they can through an inner one, which is the lens that all others are ultimately filtered through anyway. So film is only a medium condemned by its limitations, if people too are condemned by theirs, and Lei Lei, perhaps, is arguing that neither of them are, or at least that they don’t have to be. Though he does so in an incomplete way — he reaches to the dream world, the inner life, and doesn’t follow through to the outer one — a path between them can be seen, if only faintly.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.