Pi@LFF is a series of reviews made by a team of Pi’s Arts & Culture writers at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival. In this article, Christie Wong reviews acclaimed writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo’s Five Men and a Caravaggio.
The dizzyingly diverse subject matter of Five Men and a Caravaggio, from critically acclaimed Chinese-British author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo, is difficult to describe. It ties together ‘contemporary China and post-Brexit referendum London’, and its key visual, featured in LFF brochures, is an image of a man in the nude lying peacefully atop a tree branch. How can any of these things be connected, and of all things by Caravaggio?
As is slowly revealed in the first few minutes of viewing, the documentary captures the kitchen-table conversations of five characters (the Poet, Painter, Philosopher, Photographer and Writer) as they ruminate on life and art in the months following the Poet’s 40th birthday, for which he was gifted a reproduction of Caravaggio’s 1604 John in the Wilderness.
The painting takes on a significance for each individual that is slowly peeled back by Guo in an, at times, humorous, but more often than not, poignant way – think Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants for cultured adults. By the end of the film we come away knowing more about the individuals and the shape of the global narratives they are part of than the painting itself.
In the painting, St. John has his back to the foliage behind him and is moving toward the light, and this comes to represent how each of the characters are coming ‘out of the woods’ in their own ways. For the Poet, St. John represents his finally having shed the youthful impulsivity and impatience that led to a succession of unsuccessful relationships. For the Chinese replica Painter, Chen Min, it not only represents being able to provide for his young family but also his forthcoming plans to retire from replica production to begin creating his own work.
The Philosopher, a friend of the Poet, takes on the replica as a challenge and returns to his childhood painterly roots as he aims to produce a more accurate representation of St. John than Chen managed. For the Photographer, St. John’s dauntlessness mirrors his own wild antics – he is shown throughout the film creating a series of nude self-portraits in secluded sections of parks. For the Writer, it is St. John’s movement and precarity with which he connects – he has lived a displaced and nomadic life since fleeing Sudan as a toddler, and continues to face uncertainty in the UK.
Simmering in the background of these stories of personal change are the wider socio-political contexts of London and Shenzhen. The only direct mention of Brexit is through a shot of a laptop on a kitchen counter playing news coverage of the referendum. The formally simple shot is powerful and incredibly sobering because of its familiarity. Spliced in before the last quarter of the film, it reminds us that the colourful cast of characters, as well as Guo, are very real people that live in the same world as we do. More importantly, for this band of creatives, it is uncertainty and the continual struggle of day-to-day survival that is the common denominator that draws Chen into the mix from his very different context of an exponentially rapidly developing China and its new and indefinite chapter under Xi Jinping.
Perhaps pushing the boundaries of the documentary category, it is interesting how much Guo’s presence can be felt in the film – during the Q&A that followed the screening, it was almost as if the film hadn’t finished for how seamlessly her presence on screen and voice in person blended together. It is perhaps necessary to be aware of how the situations depicted in the film, and perhaps many more others that did not make the cut, were set up by Guo. Nevertheless, Five Men and a Caravaggio is interesting for how Guo has painted, in a sense, a ‘St. John’ of her own – a portrait of a world suspended in flux.
Featured Image Credit: BFI