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Object Lesson: Cao Fei's Beijing zombies in L.A. serve as a riff on modern China

Strange things happen in Cao Fei's "Haze and Fog." A pair of policemen eat snacks in a park that looks like a dead ringer for Monet's sun-dappled canvases of Giverny. A reckless motorist hits a cyclist — and then beats him with a stick. A delivery man drops a watermelon, which smashes into a million carnal bits. He then takes a bite, only to find a piece of paper buried in the flesh. 

Cao's beguiling 46-minute, live-action film, currently on view at the Mistake Room in downtown Los Angeles, imagines a Beijing in which nothing operates in quite the way you'd expect. It's a place where real estate agents mindlessly dance to "Gangnam Style," a cleaning woman does yoga atop a ping-pong table in a pair of stolen shoes, and no one quite seems to notice that the city is being slowly overtaken by zombies.

The film captures a certain capitalist ennui: pampered professional classes who exist in a state of discontent they can never quite buy their way out of.

"Zombie culture reflects a global situation — the numbness, brutality and loss of control," Cao stated via email from her studio in China. "I use zombies, a mysterious peacock and dancing real-estate agents to suggest my perception of everyday life in modern China. In China, the magical comes to real life."

To tell this surreal story, Cao used the city's real-life landscapes: banal concrete esplanades, anonymous condo towers and neighborhoods so new they seem to materialize on the horizon like a mirage. At one point, her camera lingers on a development bearing all kinds of Romanesque flourishes — not what you'd expect in the middle of Beijing.

Interestingly, many of these scenes were shot in the very residential compound where Cao lives, which she thinks perfectly channel "the funny aesthetics of the middle class, [which] matches the surreal atmosphere of 'Haze and Fog.'"

In the film, she adds, "the urban middle class plays the metaphorical role of wild grass — eking out a sad existence in [its] bleakly phantasmagoric environment."

Altogether, "Haze and Fog" is funny and weird and observant, capturing a desperate striving for creature comforts that offer little in terms of long-term fulfillment. For much of the film, the viewer doesn't see the approaching zombies. But they are there — physically and psychologically — lurking at the perimeter, ready to mindlessly devour whatever stands in their path. 

That's a story that resonates well beyond China.

"Cao Fei: Shadow Plays," is on view at the Mistake Room through Nov. 21. 1811 E. 20th St., downtown Los Angeles, tmr.la.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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