Review of Cao Fei's La Town at Manchester's Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts

Review of Cao Fei’s La Town at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts

Cao Fei blurs reality and fantasy in a fascinating and atmospheric short film screened at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts this month. To mark its 30th anniversary, the organisation now presents another piece, La Town (2014), which was originally exhibited in the 56th Venice Biennale last year.

In this live-action film, Cao presents miniature models within a carefully constructed diorama landscape based loosely on our own. In lieu of a plot, the film shows us a series of scenes where the fictional La Town and its inhabitants undergo a dark transition. This long, apocalyptic sequence takes up most of the film’s 42-minute running time. In the prologue, figurines are shown relaxing in the sunshine on a green, idyllic meadow, blissfully unaware of the dystopia to come. The final scene takes place inside a museum, where assorted items – red flags, ruined buildings, an ‘Occupy’ sign – inform future generations of La Town’s historic struggles.

“This is a work of total fiction,” the artist said in an interview with The Brooklyn Rail in 2014. “There is no ‘La Town’ in the world, but according to the myth it is a town that has existed in many different parts of the world in many different time periods.” Yet the world presented in Cao’s film is an unmistakeable metaphor for the tumultuous events in China following Deng Xiaoping’s liberal economic reforms. In particular, it invokes the nation’s frequent riots and civil disorder, the criminalising of sex-related acts in commercial venues, and Westernisation. Although the town’s signifiers include a McDonald’s and a cinema playing Gone with the Wind, the ‘global town’ resembles the East being shaped by the West amid globalisation.

The setting is clearly fabricated, yet Cao’s attention to detail makes La Town feel like a lived-in environment. All the models were purchased off the internet, which Cao then re-configured in her studio to give them a sense of history. A standout sequence involves a striptease bar, which is surrounded by policemen and cars on the outside, and rotating pole dancers on the inside. The grimey streets, the bleary neon, and the wailing police sirens all capture an aura of sleaze and of menace better than any dialogue could. Just as impressive is a desolate supermarket, trashed by a bloody mob – trolleys are turned over, faces are scarred, and blood and dirt peppers the floor.

A voice-over dialogue between an unseen man and woman anchors La Town’s loose narrative, but does little to clarify the events on screen. The script lifts lines from Marguerite Duras’ screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour (1959), whereby two off-screen voices also serve a similar purpose, and keeps the French language intact. Duras’ elusive dialogue makes La Town unfold like an ethereal memory or dream as told in a trance. The recurring fading to black, Cao’s restless camerawork (the models are shot in close-ups, long shots, canted framing and even with 360 degree spins) and the continual racking in focus from foreground to background all enhance La Town’s dreamlike feel, making the audience piece together the visual and verbal fragments in an attempt to make sense of a kaleidoscopic world.

This exhibition is the second in a six-month programme celebrating the CFCCA’s 30th anniversary. It is a rotating exhibition of high profile artists, all of whom have contributed before, during its three decades in showcasing contemporary Chinese art. The 30 Years of CFCCA programme was launched on 4 February 2016 to coincide with Chinese New Year.

La Town, until 27 March 2016, Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Thomas Street, Manchester, M4 1EU. For more information, visit

1. Still from La Town (2014). Courtesy of