Through the keen eyes of an ethnologist, we watch the minutia of a middle aged single man care for his dying father in the wilds of Yunnan province. Under different pretenses, fictional or factual, this setup would probably lead to predictable if not pedantic results. Instead we get a study--so careful, so patient and so alarmingly elegiac--on the essence of our humanity.
Apuda is a man whose weather worn face and work weary body probably defy his age. He is part of the Naxi minority who lives in the beautiful highlands of Yunnan, butting up against Myanmar and the Tibetan plateau. He lives off the land, harvesting apples and maintaining livestock with his village and shares a room with his elderly father, who is literally fading away via the natural effects of human mortality. As a result, Apuda finds himself sequestered to his father's bedside, tacitly helping him make the transition through very humble emotional and physical means.
First time director He Yuan uses the camera like a calm scientist with very little movement, observing life and death. The feebleness of Apuda's father is recorded, and we bare witness. The space that the two men share is a cave-like hovel with no electricity and no running water. The majority of the 145 minutes is spent in this room where the camera has two fixed positions: one framed on Apuda's bed where he is usually sitting and another on his father's where he sits or lays in various stages of helplessness.
On the first morning we meet Apuda and his father, we first watch Apuda slowly wake in one long take. He sits up, sluggishly assessing his body and giving great lion yawns. He and his father banter about the neighbors, as he slowly gets dressed. The camera cuts to Apuda's father, who is unable to sit up by himself or swing his legs of the side of the bed. Apuda helps him, first getting him up to a sitting position and then moving his legs one by one, all the while stabilizing him so he doesn't fall over. This is the aesthetic of anti-action--vérité extreme--where attention to detail and cultural vegetables rule.
Most of the dialog is rudimentary conversations regarding the weather and the requests made by the father. But Apuda, obviously a solitary man, has a habit of thinking out loud. Despite his uncomplicated nature, this man is clearly deep in thought, and for much of the time we spend with him in the film, he is reflecting on his father's and his own situation. Apuda often vocalizes the exact underlying messages transmitted to an audience half a world away. I no sooner realized that Apuda would eventually be in his father's situation, except with no one caring for him, when he simply states as much to himself: "No one will be crying on my grave."
His father is also articulate with his economy of words. The sing-song dialect of the Naxi is delivered through the father in a low and raspy drawl that is fascinating. At one point while Apuda is helping him eat a cup of noodles, holding him so he doesn't topple over, he says plainly, "This is absurd." Although it is unclear specifically what he is commenting on, it is a heartbreaking acknowledgement of his condition.
It is hard not to think of Pedro Costa's Fontainhas films, especially In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, while silently occupying the dark, oppressive space that of Apuda calls home. He Yuan's portraiture through the camera lens is equally as haunting and uncompromising as Costa's. Apuda is a tough film, but not for the sake of being tough. The contrast between the living conditions depicted in the film and anyone watching the film anywhere is huge. Life, especially in the West, has been homogenized by progress and sterilized by convenience to the point that the images of a simple man with little means are shocking. He Yuan's explicit ethnographic study has far more grand sociological implications through film and its unlimited global reach. Apuda is an astonishing documentary with micro specificity but macro scope.
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