“Butter Lamp,” amongst the Oscar contenders for Best Short, starts as an odd photography experiment and ends up being a quiet but poignant look at the subjectivity of a nation’s identity. The film has no story except the story of history. It is a condensed diorama of the 70 or so years of Chinese history, wrapped into a succession of live subjects posing in front of ever-changing backdrops – as China has become the ever-changing force in the world.
It’s a treat that makes you go, “Hmm…. I’m glad I watched that, but I don’t really know why.” Nothing stands out, which I guess in the annals of history, only the momentous and heroic come to fruition in the little stories we tell ourselves and our family. Nothing else much matters.
Those little stories are all “Butter Lamp” is about. We are shown generations of dubious Chinese families against metaphorical backdrops of China’s tumultuous 20th Century and are given nothing but the sight and little snippets of the actual subject. The film is only about how the subject fits into the whole setup.
It’s a great statement on national identity because it asks ‘What place do we truly have, if history is willing to pass us by and not allow us entrance?’ We, as the dutiful audience, are left to figure everything else out.
Director Hu Wei steps away from the action, and the camera, in order for the seemingly acts of randomness to harness their spontaneity. There are no stand-out actors, only stand-out faces. These are the faces who have tilled the land and stomped the terrain, somehow aware of their small part in the whole schabang. They may not have climbed the great mountain or made love to a thousand concubines, but they have the look of humility which grants they earned the life they lived.
Technically, it’s all left up to the action, or lack thereof, on-screen. The camera only makes one movement and it isn’t until the very last few seconds. If anything, it’s the soundtrack who is the stand-out player as it captures the quiet moments of time passing us by. It’s that act, the capturing of time passing us by, which most questions our connection to the thick of it all. And Butter Lamp is a small, quaint example of confronting that correlation without getting in the way of its answer.
DIRECTOR: Hu Wei SCREENWRITER: Hu Wei CAST: The actors in the film are all local Tibetan nomads living in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province.