With the pleasure of having its UK premiere during the Chinese Visual Festival, Cut Out the Eyes is the latest work of acclaimed documentary filmmaker Xu Tong. Shot in Inner Mongolia, it follows Er Housheng, a travelling musician of the Er Ren Tai folk opera tradition, who travels through different places telling of his life problems through his music. A hit with the ladies, Er ran into trouble in his younger years because of an affair that resulted on the gruesome revenge of having his eyes cut out.
If you’re used to the traditional western documentary language, you may be in for a bit of a shock watching Cut Out the Eyes, that uses and abuses of associative editing (a typical fictional and experimental device) to tell its story. It is also hard to believe that the man in the screen, a poor dirty old man that curses way too much and doesn’t dare take out his dark glasses, have ever been a sex symbol, but when Xu Tong shows pictures of him as a young man, well, doubts disappear. He goes between being a obnoxious man (who, despite what happened, still collects mistresses) and a victim in a space of seconds, but the director never shows him in a way you feel pity for him. He’s still an individual despite his misadventures, and a charismatic one, though not in the sense you would traditionally expect.
The story develops slowly, a mix of ethnography with a curious character study that never manages to go deeper than skin level, exception made for two moments: when Er visits his blind and old Mom, who lives in apparent poverty, and at the end, when he finally sings his version of the story of when he got his eyes cut out. The narrative acquires almost a mythical value, as throughout the film we’re hinted at how it happened, but only at the end given a straight, explicit and emotionally sang answer. This two moments, and the thin thread of connections between Er and his fellow performers (particularly his present lover and work partner), makes Cut Out the Eyes an interesting object, exotic in flavour but still relatable because of its underlying humanity. Xu Tong does not probe too much into Er’s private life, giving him space to continue being the legend that makes women’s hearts swoon.
The Chinese Visual Festival is in London until 22nd May. For more information please visit chinesevisualfestival.org