Credit: Courtesy
Credit: Courtesy of the artist/Vitamin Creative Space
by Jesse Catherine Webber Featured Film

The Periphery of the Base — Zhou Tao [Cinéma du Réel ’24 Review]

April 3, 2024

Mixed media artist Zhou Tao’s new film, The Periphery of the Base, playing now at Cinéma du Réel and totalling just 53 minutes across a series of long takes, functions in phases. In the early going, the camera’s operation, which is credited to Zhou (as is the film’s editing), feels alternately mechanical and organic. Movement, zoom, and focus all shift, and whether with the broad actions of automation or the palpable twitch of human touch, there is an overwhelming precision. As this oscillation occurs, there is another one in subject. Sometimes, the camera’s aim seems attached to the people around the titular base, a nebulous infrastructure project, but at other times, it feels more attuned to the landscape, or even entirely aimless. These two alternations have an intrinsic connection — for one, each has humanism as one of its poles — but their phases are out of shift, resulting in a fascinating interference pattern. When the subject of the frame is human, this means Zhou flits between the recognizable aesthetics of surveillance and voyeurism. But with these two unsynced waves of the film’s first movement, he is able to explore not only the interval between these two aesthetics, but a largely unfamiliar plane constructed from interval’s orthogonal. These hints of identification serve only to further defamiliarize the alien terrain Zhou explores both literally and aesthetically.

The same effect takes place with the film’s dialogue, which seems to have been captured at a distance, perhaps by a shotgun mic, and is thus obstructed by passing trucks, just as the image is. The film’s longest dialogue sequence takes place across a single shot of two men on a meal break, and though their grousing about an inept and unproductive manager is imminently recognizable, a story one of the men tells involving a baby goose that seems to emerge dead several times from its egg is rendered fable-like by the visual/aural interruptions.

In the film’s second half, Zhou embraces abstraction. As a sandstorm seems to necessitate adjustment of exposure, contrast, and color temperature, he also pushes the zoom and focus to their extremes. The oscillation is now elementally visual; at one point a series of red lights rendered as broad discs flash on and off, their phases, again, out of sync. As the film’s figures — humans, animals, machines, the land and the sky — are rendered more and more indistinguishable, mere forms, it becomes more and more enchanting. The recognizable aesthetic, which the film still exists more around than within, is no longer surveillance or voyeurism but the abstract avant-garde. The infrastructure project the film takes as its top-level subject is inconceivable; the press notes make no attempt to describe or determine it. Neither description nor determination is the film’s project either. Faced with an unrepresentable subject, Zhou chooses to represent unrepresentability.

Published as part of Cinéma du Réel 2024.