Review

The recession and its discontents in films by Cao Fei at the Mistake Room

Cao Fei’s L.A. solo debut at the Mistake Room presents two works that together metaphorically chart recent social and cultural shifts in her homeland of China.

The first is a video overview of “RMB City,” the fantastic, hyperbolic metropolis that Cao created in the online community of Second Life from 2007 to 2011. Its brightly colored, constantly bustling mash-up of familiar buildings, locations and artworks was at once a celebration and a critique of China’s growing international profile.

In “RMB City,” the Forbidden City rubbed up against the pink orbs of the Oriental Pearl Tower and a gargantuan version of Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel.” The extreme pastiche of tradition and modernity, East and West, reflected a new, global reality in which physical location, even the laws of physics and gravity, were irrelevant. Everything simmered in the same digital stew heated through by the RMB, China’s unit of currency.

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Today, the technology looks a bit dated — pixilated and jerky — although it is less than 10 years old. This is especially evident in “People’s Limbo in RMB City” from 2009, in which a character called “Lehman Brothers” dies and finds himself in philosophical conversations with Karl Marx, Chairman Mao and Lao Tzu. Clearly a response to the onset of the global recession, it already feels like ancient history.

The second work, “Haze and Fog,” created in 2013, is a 46-minute live-action film that paints a darkly humorous picture of the flipside of overdevelopment.

Where “RMB City” was frenetic and overstuffed, the scenes in “Haze and Fog” are quiet (there is no dialogue) and nearly empty. Set in a complex of new, high-rise apartments, we see members of China’s burgeoning middle class ensconced in the comforts of cool, streamlined modern living. But no one looks happy.

A bored pregnant woman punctuates the stillness of her apartment by screaming at the top of her lungs as her husband, practicing golf nearby, inexplicably begins to bash a piece of furniture. But stillness returns as a window washer appears dangling outside their apartment window, a working-class reminder that their frustrations are ridiculous.

As the film progresses, daily routines are increasingly punctured by moments of subversion or violence. A female janitor steals a pair of high-heeled shoes from a hallway shoe rack. A deliveryman drops a watermelon that shatters bright red across the floor. A man hit by a car is severely beaten by the driver and becomes a zombie.

Yes, although it is slow to get there, “Haze and Fog” is a zombie movie. It shifts into high gear when a frustrated real estate agent, unable to drum up interest in what seems like an endless supply of empty apartments, finally gets a break, only to have his clients consumed by a small band of the living dead.

Yet it’s not the apocalypse. Zombie-hood, in Cao’s hands, seems to be a kind of release, allowing the characters, via macabre acts of cannibalism, to finally connect. As zombies, the woman who ordered the watermelon and the man who failed to deliver it can make out in a verdant landscape far from the concrete streets and towers, shards of their flesh merging and intermingling.

With not a little humor, Cao suggests that this absolute return to our bodies is perhaps more freeing than any world we might erect around them.

The Mistake Room, 1811 E. 20th St. (213) 749-1200, through Nov. 21. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.tmr.la

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