Saturday, April 28, 2012

Blown Away

Film: Une Histoire de Vent (A Tale of the Wind)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I don’t always get along well with films that are about artistic expression rather than a story, but I’m learning. Films like Une Histoire de Vent (A Tale of the Wind) help. This is an odd little film, one that doesn’t really even attempt a plot or much of a narrative, but it is surprisingly beautiful and startling. While the film tends to be classified as a documentary, it is much less and much more than this. There is a strong pulse of magical realism to this film, a sense that the world in which our filmmaker lives is both physical and deeply touched by the spiritual.

In this film, the last of Joris Ivens’s 60 year career, is an attempt to film the wind, something patently impossible, of course. In essence, Ivens travels to China to film the effects of the wind, both as a thing itself and as a sort of metaphor for the constancy of change in the world. Once in China, Ivens spends time in the Gobi Desert, discovering that the wind has not yet arrived.

It is here that things begin to move into the realm of surrealism and magical realism. While Ivens visits an old Tai Chi master, a character from traditional Chinese theater arrives and observers their conversation. It appears that Ivens’s fascination with the wind has a physical basis—he is a lifelong asthmatic, and tells the old master that he has only half a lung with which to breathe. The old master shows him some of his forms, and the Chinese character tosses a banana peel on the ground, causing the master to slip.

While waiting for the wind to arrive, Ivens collapses and is take to the hospital. In the hospital, the old man (he was 90 when the film was made, and I can only hope to look half as good at that age) has a sort of fever dream that transports him into the film La Voyage dans la Lune, taking him to the moon where he meets Chang’e, a sort of Chinese goddess. She tells him that on the moon, there is no wind, a reality that Ivens finds especially disheartening. Back on Earth, there is a staged and stylized marriage taking place while a representative of the Chinese government makes a speech about the prosperity of the local district. There are also characters of traditional theater here, particularly the same ones that appear in the bulk of Farewell, My Concubine as well as the panther-faced man from earlier. He unplugs the speaker’s microphone and plays rock music, and suddenly Ivens appears in the same make-up.

Ivens is taken to a cavern that contains a mask from which a constant powerful wind blows. He meets the man who made it, and the man gives it to him; Ivens returns the favor by giving the mask maker a copy of one of early films. Ivens is then carried to a mountaintop where he films and listens to the wind. For me, this is the true heart of the film, the real emotional core. As he sits on the mountain, microphone dangling in front of him, it soon becomes evident that we can hear voices in the wind. In a variety of languages, the wind speaks to us, each voice representing a different wind. Slowly, the sound of the actual wind dies off, and all that is left are the sounds of the speaking—a tornado in Nebraska, the original wind of creation.

Ivens and co-director Marceline Loridan decide to film the Terracotta Army near the Great Wall of China, but are given permission to film for only 10 minutes. Instead, they buy dozens of replica statues and films these.

Back in the desert, we are still waiting for the wind to arrive. An old woman shows up and tells them that she can bring the wind. She draws a pattern in the sand while Ivens yells at the desert for the wind to blow and remake the landscape. As she finishes draw, the wind arrives.

Une Histoire de Vent is a queer duck of a film, a strange little piece of film that has no real point or plot other than simply being what it is. Ivens’s physical frailty becomes more and more evident as the film goes on. Early on, he walks, then is carried in a chair and walks with a cane on the mountaintop. By the end of the film, he is being pushed in a wheelchair around his terracotta replicas. His desire to film the wind in action in many ways seems to be what is keeping him alive.

I don’t know that I fully have understood this film, but I found it very much worth watching. It is a film of surprising and stunning beauty, a world of reality and make-believe, a sort of cinematic interior life or mental construct. It’s a difficult film to recommend because of its inherent strangeness and lack of real plot, but it is a decidedly memorable experience.

If you’re up for something weird, you may find much to take your breath away by clicking here.

Why to watch Une Histoire de Vent: Beauty, peace, and art.
Why not to watch: It’s hard to tell if it goes anywhere sometimes.


  1. Not one of the list I've seen. Good to know it's out there to see.

  2. It's meditative. Make sure you're wide awake for it, because it's the type of film that can lull you into drifting into a deep and lovely sleep. I mean that as a compliment.

  3. Ivens is a director I have tremendous respect for,he is very well-known here in China for his close relationship to China and documentaries shoot here during the war time.A Tale of the Wind really captures some essential Chinese cultural elements,like the monkey king,chang'e,li bai(a poet),Terra Cotta Warriors etc.It's amazing to visualize a subject which has no shape at all.

    If you got the chance,try his early documentaries,like "the rain",really beautiful stuff.

    1. I think I will someday. I was surprisingly moved by this film. I went into it completely cold and with no expectations, and I think that helped. It also helps that it's a truly gorgeous film.