A mound of coal, black dust dissipating into the air, a stone statue of a worker: These are the opening images of White Coal.
Loosely inspired by Hermann Melville's "The Confidence Man", the story of a blind passenger aboard a Mississippi steamboat, the first thread of White Coal follows the journey of a Polish coal transport ship and a male figure dressed as in silent movies of the proletarian heyday.
Always seeming to appear as if someone had called for him, this man wanders around a disintegrating industrial town aimlessly. We see dogs barking, and the sounds of heavy industry linger in the air. He enters a ship furtively, apparently unaware that it is a coal ship set to travel on down a narrow river. It is as if the boat had the entire crew under a spell cast by its slow but steady motion. Only minimal movements are possible on board this ship, and the "blind passenger" becomes the spectator of this self-contained routine.
The film's second thread portrays the physical structures and environment in which coal is exploited at the world's largest coal-burning power plant, located in Taychung, Taiwan.
Here color enters the film, yet it feels like the present is falling behind the past, industrial landscapes, truck transports, giant chimneys burning coal, monitoring stations following their own beat. Computers out of order and people scooting around in chairs. The drone of the Polish coal ship is mirrored by the crushing din of industry, then cancelled out by an aseptic control room vacuum that swallows whatever might otherwise be a human gesture.
This is Melville's steamboat, chugging slowly and unstoppably down a river with no end, where human beings have no voice with which to speak and exist encapsulated in their own imagined present tense.
Although the film uses the material as the primary source of its investigation, White Coal is less a film about coal than an exploration of industrial film motifs from the 1920s to the present.
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