A Marble Travelogue
(Netherlands, Hong Kong, France, Greece, 99 min.)
Dir. Sean Wang
Programme: The Changing Face of Europe (Canadian Premiere)
There have been many films that have discussed the major issues of this century, from environmental degradation, the complex nature of globalisation and the increasing homogenization of culture, but few have managed to do so well as Sean Wang’s A Marble Travelogue.
Beautifully shot, and presented in a languid, poetic spirit that never succumbs to aimlessness, this is at heart the tale of East meeting West, and how two ancient cultures–one economically and culturally ascendant, one struggling for relevance in a modern context–hold greater connections than may first appear.
The symbolism of giant slabs of marble hewn from Greek quarries that have been in existence for millennia being transplanted to the far shores of China, where the literal bedrock of Europe is shifted to another part of the world, is but one of many of the brilliant surprises that the film deftly doles out. It’s almost as if each segment is both essay and painting, providing visual representations of what gets exported (raw materials, ideas, or even sculptural or architectural conventions) vs. what gets imported, reshaped, re-sculpted, and returned from Asia back to Europe.
It’s this swirling, back-and-forth nature of idea, materials, and even language that is at the heart of Wang’s enterprise, and it’s potently revealing through careful montage that clever yet never obnoxious juxtapositions reveal great truths.
The “fake” Eiffel tower that looms over a Parisian-style apartment complex is but one simulacra that the wealthy in China can call their own, but in funny ways it’s actually the New World, overtly ignored in Wang’s gaze, that provides an almost silent sentry to this level of appropriation of the old to a new and bold economic environment. Is the adoption of classicism in a Chinese context any stranger than the Corinthian adornments in Washington? Is a replica of the famed Parisian tower anymore out of place in Tianducheng, or Sky City, than the one built on the Vegas Strip metres from a fake indoor Venetian gondola course and across the street from a faux Empire State Building? Every instance of the surreal Chinese adoption of these cultural artifacts is mirrored by North Americans completely at ease with a similar mishmash of historic tropes adorning the facades of our banks, office buildings, universities and religious buildings.
Through many tiny vignettes Wang’s travelogue feels both intimate and global in its scope, a positively electric balance that results in a quiet film that speaks loudly and coherently. The details are exquisite, far more polished even than the slightly misshapen Venuses carved from the same classic Greek marble, and as precise as the eyes dotted by tiny hands inside a housing estate, providing souvenirs for travelers capturing in tchotchke form a totem of where they have gone.
It’s in these rapturous back-and-forths that Wang’s film truly shines, and one can get a sense of a global giddiness when recognizing the ridiculousness of Chinese tourists buying made-in-China fridge magnets while visiting the crumbling ruins of the heart of Western Civilization, heading home to their robustly decorated bathrooms adorned with stone that has travelled oceans to be fitted underneath ornate toilets. In a work where metaphor after metaphor is playfully explored, the notion that we all shit the same way, just some do so in luxury, is particularly redolent, especially as one considers just how much the last few decades have shifted as to who gets to create a suitably luxurious arena for one’s ablutions.
With brief hints at the close of how COVID has slightly shifted the conversation it captures, it’s easily a film that could be the beginning of a massive cinematic project, a continuation that further illustrates just how much a country with a quarter of the world’s population will help define and appropriate the world’s cultural and historic discourse.
There are moments that are reminiscent of Joshua Oppenheimer’s innovative approach in The Act of Killing in Wang’s capacious work. Like Oppenheimer’s masterpiece, this film is filled with stunning visuals, quirky characters, startling interconnections and speaks eloquently while using as few words as possible.
A Marble Travelogue is as polished and exquisite the stone, which is its material, yet it constantly reminds one of the shards of dust and destruction that are the by-products of removing everything that’s not the finished sculptural product. Thanks to its acerbic attention to detail and sardonic tone, we’re treated to a wonderful feature film.