Editor’s note: This piece is on the 2018-19 Post-Nature exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
An art museum may seem like an unusual place to see a film, but then again Contact Prints of Baileng Canal (Yinyang Bailengzun / 印樣白冷圳 2018) isn’t just another film. Baileng Canal, a manmade tributary of the Dajia River in Taichung County, Taiwan, was built by the Japanese colonial government in 1927 in what was a huge undertaking. This documentary, written, directed, shot, and edited by Huang Shin-yao, follows the Dajia, the canal, and the terminal uses of the canal’s water using a mostly unbroken series of static shots (and the occasional pan), sans score or exposition. It’s meditative and beautiful.
The film starts off in the mountain mists, before presenting the first of eight postcard-length poems addressed to the eponymous waterway; the title of each section hints at an underlying thematic organization, but some (Departure, Chance Encounter, Expedition, Long After) are more explicable than others (Rest, Confusion, Unfinished, Reunion).
Departure begins at the source of the Dajia and passes through two of its five hydroelectric dams. Chance Encounter brings us to the Baileng proper, and Long After hints at a river mouth processing plant. Every shot demonstrates deep reflection and search for harmony, and Huang makes great use of telephoto lens from high or far places. The cinematography is crisp and detailed, granting a hypnotic beauty to ripples in water and sun-speckled leaves. But even before breaking off from the Dajia, the film makes sure to depict the human uses of the water: irrigation, cleaning, drinking, washing, siphoning off, and some portentous shots of turbine generators—Expedition even follows the irrigated produce as it’s harvested and sent to markets in Taipei. It should surprise no one that the water seems to get dirtier the farther it goes, and throughout the film we see only one person making any effort to clean it.
There’s surely an argument here regarding the surrounding communities’ relation to the waterway, especially considering the theme of the larger exhibit, but beyond the intellectual and aesthetic sides, what impressed me the most was the sheer ingenuity behind the canal’s construction. The water goes under tunnels, over bridges in pipes, over stone aqueducts, underneath roads, and at one point is siphoned in its entirety through an extremely long pipe up and over a mountain crest (portrayed with one of the handful of panning shots). Such a feat of engineering deserves exactly this kind of documentary treatment.