Each of us is captured on surveillance cameras, on average, 300 times a day. In renowned artist Xu Bing’s ambitious experimental narrative, these all-seeing eyes observe a young nun-in-training named Qing Ting (her name means Dragonfly) as she leaves her Buddhist temple in search of greater fulfillment in the secular world. Assembled from over 10,000 hours of public surveillance footage, Dragonfly Eyes is a uniquely self-aware cinematic experience, at once acknowledging its digital conceit at every turn while almost impossibly stitching together a captivating throughline from over a year’s worth of otherwise random video feeds.
Qing Ting lands a job at a highly mechanized dairy farm, where she strikes up a friendship with fellow worker Ke Fan. He falls in love with her but his affection is unrequited, and he acts out violently trying to win her over, landing him in jail. Seeking her out again upon his release, he comes to believe that she has reinvented herself as the online celebrity Xiao Xiao, causing a kind of identity crisis truly singular to the Internet age. The interchangeable faces, identities and, eventually, genders of our pixelated protagonists coalesce into a kind of smudgy fluidity that allows the viewer to simultaneously track the evolving story arc while at every point re-emphasizing how easily such footage can be weaponized against us depending on the intentions of those compiling the data. On a narrative level the film is full of cheeky humor, warmth, and moments of intense wonder, reverie and absurdity, though all the while the chilling subtext embedded in how and why it exists are never far from mind.