Jin Huaqing’s latest is a thought-provoking and visually stunning look at spirituality on the Tibetan plateau…
Dark Red Forest is the latest work from Chinese documentarian Jin Huaqing, a director known for his humanistic take on a variety of subjects, and whose previous works like Blossom with Tears, Endless Road and Heavy Metal have won him a number of awards and nominations around the world. Having shot the short doc The Tibetan Girl in 2016, Jin returns to Tibet for his latest, a feature-length offering following the lives of nuns on the Tibetan plateau. Shot over a six-year period, the film focuses on the experiences of the nuns of the Yarchen Monastery, and in particular on their annual retreat, which takes place during the 100 coldest days of the year, seeing them living in tiny wooden huts in the snowy mountains as they meditate and pray.
The highly personal nature of spirituality makes it a difficult subject to explore and encapsulate through filmmaking, and Dark Red Forest sees Jin Huaqing taking an approach which is at once both intimate and objective, depicting the lives of the nuns without guiding the viewer towards one particular point or lesson. Free from music, voice-over or narration, save for a few context-providing title cards, the film has a quiet line of inquiry and avoids being the kind of high concept doc that its premise might have suggested, whilst similarly eschewing the clichés of exoticism and pseudo-enlightenment that many films about Tibet and religion fall back on. Although some characters do recur, the film is also not a personal story, following the experiences of the group rather than individuals, focusing on practices and rituals, from meditation and prayer through to medicine and other daily business. Charting the retreat, the nuns’ existence in general and wider instances of life and death, the film covers a great deal of ground, and its seasonal structure helps to give it a cyclical feel, something which fits Jin’s aims far better than a traditional doc narrative might have, even if it does mean that that it needs more patience on the part of the viewer.
At the same time, judiciously employed brief conversations and fragmented anecdotes bring out the humanity and personalities of the nuns (at times amusingly so), and more importantly their struggles, both external and internal. Through these subtle hints of anxiety and conflict Jin manages to suggest the tensions between the nuns’ decision to commit to such a life and their natural individual instincts and efforts to avoid temptation – though the notions of personal sacrifice and the weight of their choices are never overplayed, the harshness of their lives is evident throughout. Various themes can be inferred, and questions arise as to the place of the nuns and their sheltered spiritual existence in Chinese society and the modern world, with policy eventually intruding in a manner which it’s hard not to see as being rather ironic.
It’s clear that Jin was able to secure a quite incredible level of access to the nuns, something which allows him to capture their lives in fascinating detail, his camera getting amazingly close to their practices while remaining unobtrusive. At the same time, Dark Red Forest is neither an educational nor an overtly exploratory doc, with its standout scenes going hand in hand and being treated with the same respect as those focused on more mundane activities. Jin’s approach, and the absence of audience guidance, gives the film an introspective feel, inviting the same kind of quiet contemplation shown by its subjects – this having been said, several scenes do command more attention, in particular a ‘sky burial’, which apparently took several years to shoot, and which will quite possibly be the key sequence which sticks in many viewers’ minds.
What’s also certain to linger after the credits have rolled, and what will likely attract many to Dark Red Forest in the first place are the stunning visuals, Jin making the most of the breath-taking landscape and epic, wintry vistas. With the film not featuring much in the way of dialogue or characters, it’s the cinematic language which progresses the narrative, from the weather to the ways in which Jin shoots the lives of the nuns, whether tracking them through the snow and or being crammed into their small rooms and wooden huts with them – it’s hard not to imagine that the shoot was a difficult one as well as being very long, with Jin and his crew being at the mercy of the elements along with the nuns. The colour red is prominent throughout, standing out against the whites and greys of the locations, and the film has a great many striking shots of the costumes and robes of the nuns, and it’s this which provides one of the different interpretations of the title, suggesting the concept of a ‘religious forest’ based around them as a spiritual collective. There’s a real bleak beauty to the film, though with the harshness of the environment being offset to a degree by the presence of the nuns, and several vividly captured outbursts of joy ensure that things never become too grim.
It’s not easy to make spirituality cinematic or to convey it visually, and Jin attempts this by giving Dark Red Forest a sense of stillness throughout, in particular through a series of long, almost painting-like shots of the landscape. Thankfully, this works well, adding to the meditative air of the film rather than making it feel too slow or stoic – the film benefits hugely from Jin’s editing, which skilfully combines these still life shots with more naturalistic footage, ensuring that it moves at a very engaging pace. The way that Jin switches between scenarios, locations and characters also helps to keep the film flowing and free from filler material, and a sensible running time of less than an hour and a half means that it never outstays its welcome, preferring to leave the viewer with questions rather than labouring matters. This sense of economy makes the film far more accessible and less obscure than it might have been in the hands of another director, something which has always been a real strength of Jin’s work.
With its strong visuals and the nuanced, quietly revealing approach it takes to such a weighty subject, Dark Red Forest is arguably Jin’s best work to date, and one of the more intriguing and watchable Chinese docs of recent years. Successfully pulling the viewer into the rhythm of its subjects’ lives and avoiding the usual pitfalls of its premise and form, it’s a film which is perhaps best described as an experience than as a doc in the traditional sense, and one which will hopefully reach a wider audience.