original title: 梦中的投递
year of production: 2018
country of production: China
director: Zheng Yuan
festivals: Oberhausen International Short Film Festival 2019, Festival Internacional de Curtas Metragens de São Paulo 2019
© images: Dream Delivery (Zheng Yuan)
Zheng Yuan’s cinematic approach blends fiction, documentary, essay and investigative studies in order to present a rich, if somewhat abstract, context. The Lanzhou-born director, now living and working from Beijing, has brought his work to festivals such as Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, Kassel Dokfest and Ann Arbor Film Festival before. This time, the short film ‘Dream Delivery’ focuses on a part of the working force rarely depicted on film: couriers. Their lives are presented through a series of vignettes including CCTV footage, mobile phone recordings, and staged film, through an approach that is intensely experimental.
A whispering voice opens the film, asking "Do you remember them?” A louder voice replies: "No, I don't”, as a film-negative format appears on screen, including multiple frames juxtaposed with each other, accompanied by the sound of a violin. A number of people, most with helmets on, are presented in a background that includes both the Parthenon and the Sphinx, while it is soon revealed that the people depicted are couriers and the dialogue actually refers to them. The same question continues to be repeated, with the reply always being the same, yet a bit more analytical with every repetition. As the camera pans from right to left, more historical monuments and more people in helmets can be seen.
In an interview with e-flux.com, Zheng Yuan mentions that the aforementioned setting is actually a theme park, which was originally constructed as a film studio that never went into business — Yuan is the first person to ever film there. The juxtaposition of this almost surreal setting — which includes internationally renowned monuments where the couriers are taking a break — creates an antithesis that is both playful and surreally meaningful on a meta level: shooting a film about real people in a setting that could have been a film set but is now just a resting area.
Footage from what seems to be an old recording presents another group of couriers in another setting, with the narration revealing that they are sitting in the entrance of a mall — waiting for orders to come. The segment opens with an extreme close up to a number of big pots filled with colourful flowers, placed in the same entrance, creating a visually appealing resonance with the red, yellow and blue suits the couriers are wearing. As the fragment comes to its end, it is revealed that the film was actually moving in reverse. The format then changes into a widescreen image, which clears up the film quality that was rather faulty before. A long shot now reveals a number of couriers in the same studio/theme park area. The panning this time moves from left to right, exposing the setting in even more detail, although the couriers appear frozen in the same stance. This combination essentially plays with the question if this is documentary footage or a staged film, since it is difficult to understand if these are actors asked to stay still or if’s just another trick of placing frames within frames.
The answer to this question comes a bit later, as the couriers are placed in another set in the area, which is built to look like The Netherlands, filled with the country’s famous, traditional windmills. In this scene, the couriers seem still once more, but if looked at more closely, the frame reveals some minimal movement: one of them gulps water from a bottle and the paper fans placed on the ground are rotating because of the wind. Between these two segments, another recurring scene is presented, of yet another courier, taking a nap on a bench in a park, protected from the sun by the shadow of his scooter. A man passing by barely gives him a look, emphasizing the main comment of the film, as exhibited by the narration: no one cares about these people. Initially, there seems to be no particular reason why the man narrating the film is whispering. However, as the movie progresses, and particularly in this scene, the reason for the level of volume becomes rather evident: he’s trying not to wake up the couriers, who only find very few moments during the busy working day to rest. This approach, which essentially "breaks the fourth wall" fits the experimental approach of the short perfectly, while intensifying the main message of the filmmaker about how overworked these people are.
A sleeping delivery man is shown together with a screenshot from an app that tracks the paths he took on his tour, highlighting the covered distance — “which could have brought him from China to Greece”, the off-screen voice playfully mentions. The most shocking scene, however, comes from the CCTV footage that shows a car crashing onto a delivery guy, destroying his bike and sending him flying. It’s represented here as the dream of a resting courier: they work so much that even their dreams are about their job. The ending, which essentially transforms the dream into a nightmare, shows another aspect of their work: constant danger in the streets, which is intensified by the need for speed the profession demands. The next sequences relieve this tension to a point, as the couriers are shown lying onto each other in the theme park, once more in almost absolute silence. This level of shared intimacy — as one's head lies on the body of the man next to him — seems to be a sign of comradeship among people who know and empathize with each other's blights, and are willing to even offer themselves to let their colleagues get a few moments of rest. Tension is relieved even more when a guy starts peeing and we can see his urine dripping down the dirt, towards another man resting there — a more light-hearted, humorous note in the film for sure.
The use of frames-in-frames, constantly changing aspect ratios and the juxtaposition of high and low definition visuals render Zheng Yuan’s film quite experimental in terms of visual style and storytelling. His messages are clear though: these working class men are extremely overworked, prone to a number of dangers on the street, and in constant search for moments they can take the pressure off. Yuan equally underlines the fact that no one cares about them — customers barely manage or care to look at their faces, focusing exclusively on the delivered products. This attitude most people have towards couriers, essentially treating them as means to an end instead of actual human beings, is where the root of their overworking issues lies: no one cares if they are hit by a car on the road or if they ever find a moment to rest, as long as their orders are delivered to them as quickly as possible.
Through the idea of the theme park and the monuments that can be found there, Zheng Yuan equally comments on the globalization dream China practises. In the country's case, this fantasy to become just like the West is implemented through some impressive counterfeits, as exhibited in the “Eiffel Tower” in Hangzhou, the “London Bridge” in Suzhou and the “Thames” Town in Shanghai. This concept, much like the bizarre images of the couriers sleeping in the theme park, induces life in China with a sense of surrealism, hence the experience of visiting the Eiffel Tower in Hangzhou — which is, though, actually part of modern life in the country.
‘Dream Delivery’ exhibits an overall visual and contextual approach which is anything but easy to follow. Nevertheless, viewers who are willing to take a closer look, can discover eloquently communicated messages by Zheng Yuan whose cinematic artfulness is more than evident.Panos Kotzathanasis