For all its intelligence, there’s something uncomfortable about The Blue Dragon, Robert Lepage’s return to China. Picking up the story, twenty-years on, of Pierre Lamontagne, the conceptual artist who left Quebec for Shanghai in The Dragon’s Trilogy, it has beneath it a melancholy that laments a changing China. It comes close to scolding in its portrayal of a nation whitewashing over its heritage. True though that may be, the thought niggles: what right has Robert Lepage, what right have we, to criticise the shifts of a culture that is not our own?
China here is spluttering as it sprints to catch up. The capitalist ideals to which it now aspires are making it ill. Cities are flattening entire neighbourhoods, driving people from their homes by cutting off water and electricity, to make way for banks and shopping centres. Adverts for KFC co-opt Chinese history to flog chicken burgers. Elsewhere, its culture is slowly bleaching, losing its specificity and its identity in order to replicate ours. Not for nothing does the promising Chinese artist Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo), Pierre’s partner, end up knocking out twelve van Gogh self-portraits in a day: expressionism reduced to the copyist’s conveyor belt.
So where in all this is the criticism of Western values in and of themselves, rather than merely relative to whosoever holds them? It is in the jaded Pierre, who cares only for his own situation and treats his partner as a collector’s item or project. It is in the washed-up alcoholic Claire, who comes to China to buy herself a child. Lepage doesn’t do state of a nation. He does state of the globe.
And yet, these seem almost gentle by comparison to image on image of China’s own selling out. Claire might say that “adoption from China is a long and expensive process,” but the same holds true for the reverse process. After all, Xiao Ling is quite happy to get into bed with Pierre, but refuses any proposal of something more permanent and committed. She also proves a neglectful mother incapable of caring for the child that she can’t get rid of. Perhaps it’s the context of watching in London, with an inescapably Western perspective, but the balance seems rigged against China. There’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s one thing for us to behave in a certain way and another thing for them to do so.
Nevertheless, Lepage is attuned to the inauthenticity of The Blue Dragon, to his own status as outside observer, and approaches it with a careful and brilliant management of form, presenting the story as staged cinema. On the stage is a structure – not dissimilar to the skene of a Greek Theatre – that is framed and shallow. This is not the world, but a window on it, deliberately defined by its edges and confined to its frame. Within we get various locations – Pierre’s apartments, cityscapes, planes, bars and galleries and slums, interiors and exteriors – all of which appear and disappear without a trace of stage management, allowing jump-cuts and split-screens.
In using the cinema, Lepage not only manages to admit to a Western perspective, thereby to some extent neutering the pull of this inevitable shortfall, but also to frame China in terms of its capitalist ambitions. After all, the silver screen has always reflected our aspirational fantasies and here it serves to further divorce China from itself, serving it up in archly Western terms.
Even if Lepage can’t wholly circumnavigate the problem of cultural relativity, however, his craft is par excellence. Handling such global currents in such a compact and domestic three-hander is quite an astonishing achievement and Lepage’s composition is characteristically taut. One might accuse him of overloading the story such that the personal collapses under the weight of signification rather than standing on its own significance. Here everything stands for something far greater and, though his metaphors are finely tuned, they are also overt. The density of ideas overwhelms the narrative itself. Every character stands for not just a country, but a whole hemisphere and heritage, all of which means The Blue Dragon is more read than watched. While that’s fine, you can’t help but feel that a bigger story, one with more mystery and ambiguity that must be mined for its depths, would be more satisfying.