Måns Månsson is in charge of the directing and the cinematography for Stranded in Canton, with the careful mediation between the two aspects of cinema resulting in both a visually stunning and well-put together film. The piece is constructed around the city of Canton (also known as Guangzhou) in the Guandong province of China. Månsson’s protagonist is the Lebrun, a man who has travelled to Canton from the The Democratic Republic of Congo. From the start of the film, we’re never dealing with an intricately complex plot, it’s very stripped back, burnt out and often feels like a dream, where most of the details in the script are carefully smudged by the director for effect. Stranded in Canton is, however, as its title depicts, a film about desperation.
The film was co-written with Li Hongqi, whose film Winter Vacation won the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 2010. The simultaneous familiarity with Guangzhou that emerges throughout the plot is contrast with Lebrun’s abject alienation in the city, often articulated through Månsson’s cinematic visual contrasts between his protagonist and the vast landscapes and industrial backdrops he finds himself. Lebrun ends up in Canton in an attempt to make money through a simple process: making T-shirts for the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, led by Joseph Kabila. In the film, Lebrun has gone to Canton to make shirts specifically for the re-election campaign for Kabila. When the audience is brought into the film the shirts have been completed, however, this is punctuated by a major complication: the election is over, Lebrun has been “screwed” by a late delivery, and is in a position of trying to bring value back to the seemingly worthless investment he has put everything into.
Lebrun is Månsson’s attempt to fuse documentary and fiction within film. While the film is explicitly fictionalised, the story depicted is the increasingly common geopolitical narrative of Congolese workers in desperate need of working looking elsewhere, frequently ending up in the East. In this study, there’s a notable absence from this film, and its the structures from which Månsson wanders into things: the West. It’s explicit. There are scenes of Congolese diaspora in Lebrun going to a church service, his interaction with Mr. Wassim another expatriate, and his interactions with his acquaintances-cum-friends. The only sign of the West is the frequent repetition of Lionel Richie’s All Night Long, its use veering from comic to tragic throughout the films duration.
Lebrun’s first acquaintance in the film is Sylvie, who is a Congolese trader who has evidently been in the city for significantly longer than Lebrun. She’s more wary of the locals, and more assured in her own dealings – acting as both a friend and a mentor to Lebrun. There’s an interesting use of the documentary bleed over in the way in which she talks about the Chinese, often saying explicitly racist phrases such as “they’re just Chinese” or “it’s the Chinese” when describing sour business deals. It’s not put in there as characterisation, but as an attempt to fictionalise the already documented conflicts between the locals and the diaspora of workers in the city.
At times, Stranded in Canton is deeply comedic. One of the major plot lines is Lebrun trying to get the shirts modified to sell to the opposition, with the design featuring a giant red ‘X’ over Kabila’s face alongside the words “FUCK”, “SHIT”, “DOWN”. He plans this alongside the second of his two acquaintances within the film, Frank. Working as his translator, and one of his very few friends in the film – not by choice but by isolation – Lebrun becomes closer to Frank than anyone in the film; they go to karaoke together, try to save the t-shirts, and eventually are forced to go their separate ways. Frank serves as a sheath that mirrors Lebrun’s own unravelling. It’s clear that Lebrun doesn’t have the ability to save the t-shirts from near the start of the film, however, his inability to reconcile his failure in that regard follows him until its conclusion. Frank is almost Lebrun’s conscience, one that eventually despite all its care for him is forced to discard him. In their last scene together he pushes Lebrun to consider his actions with “what’s your plan?”, “what’s your next step?”, always met with “I don’t know”. Eventually, even he concedes he’s unable to help Lebrun and forces himself to leave.
The film concludes with Lebrun burning the shirts in a piece of cinematography that serves as a microcosm for the rest of the film: Lebrun slightly off-centre, the dwarfed by the seemingly infinite landscape behind him, and reduced in significance even in the foreground. Lebrun is a tragic figure throughout the film, but however painful his story is, Månsson portrays it through a largely humanistic lens, with a constant focus on awe-inspiring cinematography. Stranded in Canton is a masterclass of careful dialogue between the factors that make or break a film. For Månsson, his ability to reconcile a plot written through a process of dialogue and delineation, a beautiful approach to cinematography, and the ability to direct all of this into a cogent and powerful work, makes Stranded in Canton a very worthwhile piece of cinema.