Some directors take exciting events and squeeze the life out of them. They fill the screen with color, sound, and movement, but it's all just spectacle, lying there on the screen, exsanguinated. Other directors, like China's Bi Gan, take banal incidents and render them mesmerizing.
Who is Chen? (He’s played by Chen Yongzhong, who has the deadpan affect of Beat Takeshi.) And why are we following him around the damp mountain town of Kaili? Chen chats with a colleague, rides his motorbike down twisty roads, and hangs out with his nephew, Weiwei. What could be boring in different hands isn't, because Bi reveals character details slowly and invests each scene with intrigue (odd compositions, disorienting reflections).
As in the films of Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, there's a porous line between reality and fantasy. Are wild men, for instance, really roaming the hills? Chen, as it transpires, is a doctor, an ex-con, and a poet. When he suspects that his half-brother, Crazy Face, has sold Weiwei to pay a debt, he sets out to retrieve him.
The quest involves a digressive trip by truck and train—including a bravura 40-minute tracking shot—through towns as small and strange as Kaili where his past and future come to life through the people he meets. They may be real, they may be figments of his imagination, or he may have passed through a portal to another dimension. Whether Bi is familiar with the work of Marcel Proust or Jorge Luis Borges, he's definitely on their wavelength.