Locarno 2022 review: Our Lady of the Chinese Shop (Ery Claver)

“A work of extraordinary importance in terms of contemporary African cinema, and its perpetual quest to look back at the past while forging its way towards the future.”

One of the more prominent debates of recent decades is the relationship between China and other countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, now a sanctuary for various businesses that have invested so much in the continent that they have become a major economic force, and one whose impact on the region is indelible. However, it remains a controversial subject that many artists struggle to interpret, since it is a very prominent issue, but not one that is easy to filter into a specific format. This is precisely where we find Our Lady of the Chinese Shop (Nossa Senhora da Loja do Chinês), the ambitious feature-length debut of Ery Claver, who voyages to the heart of his native Angola to portray the plight of the people of Luanda. Some are stricken by poverty and willing to do whatever to rid themselves of a variety of burdens, while others are foreigners descending on a city for its economic potential, and doing what they can to glean the resources without making it entirely clear that they are taking control over one of the most bustling cities in Africa.

Like any city in a country once colonized by European powers that saw Africa as an untapped well of resources, Luanda is split between cultures, and is continuously negotiating its identity between past and present. There have been very few films that so effectively portray the divide between cultures as Our Lady of the Chinese Shop, with Claver not only focusing on how the country is constantly looking towards the past, particularly in trying to distance itself from its colonial history, but also focusing on more contemporary issues. He questions whether outside influences across the continent are attempts to draw out the potential of these countries, or if they are simply another form of imperialism, albeit far more subtle. However, Claver does not seem to be a director looking to make the boldest proclamation – instead of making it clear what his intentions are with this narrative, he instead chooses to approach the film as an allegorical account of the modern state of postcolonial Africa. Using bleak imagery to create a vibrant landscape, the film then contrasts it with a more abstract tone to create an unforgettable labyrinth of ideas, some of which may not come together until the final haunting moments, when we fully understand the scope of what Claver was aiming to convey with this film.

Tonally and structurally, Our Lady of the Chinese Shop is a peculiar work. It is built from the foundation of exploring a city of contradictions, one that is proudly African, but still so deeply steeped in its Portuguese past, as well as being redefined through new interactions with other countries that are beginning to assert power. It is a city that has a distinct identity, but which is still haunted by the ghosts of the past, reminding every character in the film about the shared trauma they have under the imperial system. This film is a poignant example of the concept of the empire “writing back”, where it reflects on its past while developing its own identity beyond that of its former leaders. Claver represents this through constructing a disjointed narrative that is composed of fragmented lives, which may seem arbitrary on their own (and perhaps even repetitive, since many of them are formed from the same refrain being repeated countless times) but turned into an unsettling mosaic of modern life when placed alongside one another. It facilitates some profoundly compelling discussions about subjects such as religion (both traditional African beliefs, and the more stringent dogmatic policies of Catholicism that were imposed on these people over the decades), which is blended with a stark social realist drama, highlighting the intersection between the two. It especially discusses how religion can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how one perceives the extent to which it is used to fill the void of poverty and pestilence, a frequent motif used in the film. It is not particularly easy to make sense of the film, but the director makes it clear that he has a precise vision, which manifests in every frame of this unconventional but captivating film.

At the film’s conclusion, it may be surprising to many viewers that few of our questions have actually been answered, and a lot of the conflict remains unresolved. However, as much as we have grown conditioned to neat conclusions, art is not obligated to be satisfying, and sometimes leaving the audience with more questions than answers can be an important tool, especially in a work as mediated by history and culture as this one. The film provides a deeply haunting view of contemporary Luanda, a city that has been defined by a dual culture for much of the past century and has continuously struggled to free itself from these historical shackles, while maintaining the strong identity it has developed alongside them. The shift from social realist drama that depicts the reality of the working class living in these urban spaces, to an unhinged psychological thriller that borders on outright disturbing, seems only natural under Claver’s assured direction. The film makes use of discordant sounds and nightmarish images to create an unsettling postmodern cacophony as provocative as it is daring, a perfect summation of this work of extraordinary importance in terms of contemporary African cinema, and its perpetual quest to look back at the past while forging its way towards the future.