Sydney Film Festival Review: Lake August (China, 2014)


In Lake August, screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival, what little drama occurs is almost completely subsumed by the landscapes of the film. A young man, Ah Li, drifts across a remote corner of rural China, smoking and drinking beer, but mostly just standing there, for almost two hours in a film comprised of mostly five or six minute shots. But rather than bore, each shot is so carefully composed, so immersive, that your attention wanders from the characters in the foreground to the tranquillity of the mountains, lakes or cities in the background. Growing used to the languid pace of the film happens surprisingly quickly.

Chinese director Yang Heng has made two previous films, both made in Hunan province where he grew up, and both marked by the minimalist technique of Lake August. The film is a portrait of life in rural China, away from the images of urban crowding and pollution most would associate with the country. At times it’s so naturalistic it feels like Heng simply followed someone around, filming their life during a few unremarkable moments.

The plot feels so secondary to the scenery of the film that it doesn’t seem worth mentioning. Li’s father drowns while drunk, then soon afterwards his girlfriend announces she is marrying someone else. Li makes his way from the city to a peaceful lakeside region where he meets an old married school friend and becomes involved with the girl his friend is having an affair with. All of this gets equal, if not less, onscreen time than that devoted to Li leaning on things, lying on things, drinking, smoking or watching porn. In one lengthy shot he sleeps in a boat drifting on the lake. In another he says he’s going to shower then stands beside it and has a cigarette.

The film succeeds because it captures life in real time and invests significance in those nothing moments that fill our days. Everything we see Li do is mundane, but in his silences we pay attention to what is happening around him; the movements of the people he talks to, the background noise of car horns or construction work, the ripples on the lake or birds darting across the sky. In this sense Lake August is close in spirit to Chinese landscape painting, in which the inhuman vastness of mountains and lakes is depicted alongside the detailed yet insignificant forms of buildings and people, a contrast that imparts a feeling of tranquillity and insignificance at the same time. Heng’s unconventional scenes achieve the same effect: our attention strays from the characters, takes in the landscape and wanders back, now having a sense of the whole along with the specificities, banal or otherwise, of the story.

This seems to be typical of Heng’s work. Of his 2009 film Sun Spots, the director said that he wanted to create a slowed down feeling that would reflect what China used to be, before the increasingly frantic pace of modernity overtook the country. Lake August is imbued with this same tranquillity, but it is a tranquillity that is somehow achieved despite the portrayal of China in a far from glamorous light: in the city the sky is polluted and the noise of traffic constant; in the countryside characters squabble and smoke and idle their lives away. But in each of Heng’s shots there is always beauty that erases the ugliness. The day to day may be mundane, but there is significance in the insignificant if you know how to look for it.


Lake August is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival, on Wednesday 11 June at 8:30pm, and on Saturday 14 June at 2:15 pm. For more information and to purchase tickets click HERE.


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