Ghostbox Cowboy, from filmmaker John Maringouin, is a cinematic adventure like no other -- the first U.S narrative feature shot entirely in one of the world's most secretive and essential places: Chinese Tech Manufacturing.
From MUBI.com’s Uncas Blythe:
“I wonder. Do people really understand what crazed Herzogian scheme it is to shoot a film unauthorized and guerrilla style on tourist visas in China? It was mad enough when Jia Zhangke and his generation did it, but this is in some ways beyond that. The film is the first fiction feature from John Maringouin, known as a formally and sonically experimental documentarian. Ghostbox Cowboy is a montage film, a film very much created in the edit, but that’s not to say that Maringouin isn’t a good hunter or on-the-fly composer of material, because there are parts of it that are as elemental in their poetic surrealism as anything I’ve ever seen. And he’s interested in subjects that produce some sort of unfamiliar, queasy vertigo, either ideological or interpersonal. I have to admire this fearlessness. Because it is faithful and true to its fragments, Ghostbox Cowboy is a film that needs to be post-mise en scène. Increasingly, mise en scène feels too formed, too inadequate for liquid modernity. Among other things, it’s a film about the normally esoteric process of creating what economists and Starbucks hustlers call a value chain in a global frame. This is a rather skittish thing to capture. The ethnographer Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, in her 2015 book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, spends almost 300 pages doing this same thing for matsutake. And I don’t think a film has shown this particular aspect of it—that this process is about creating and abandoning and creating again fictions out of people and objects. In other words, the process of creating a value chain is self-reflexive; not that different from a filmmaker making a documentary. In this way, even though it features two “name” professionals, Robert Longstreet and David Zellner, Ghostbox Cowboy is a collective work of ethnofiction.
The film is broken roughly into two halves. The first part is like a hybrid of the Olivier Assayas of demonlover and Boarding Gate and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, in other words a DeLillo-esque film about the dangerous schemes, languages, and sociologies of globalized capital. This is the polyphonic part of the story. That’s the “sexy” part of the movie. This half is very good, and Soderberghian, but it’s not as interesting, searching and epiphanic as what comes in the second half.
Jimmy Van Horn has taken the last of his money, $40,000 in crypto-currency, and come to China to bet it all on a prototype of a fake electronic dowsing rod that he calls Ghostr. This box is supposed to help the living communicate with the dead, and Van Horn believes he can, with the help of Chinese venture capital, unleash it on the Chinese market and sit back and bathe in money. It’s a sensible but naive hustle, a globalized version of shark tank. But he’s underestimated the sharks, who have a razor-edged familiarity with American weaknesses, and with a cruel slowness they banquet on him, taking his intellectual property, his cash, his labor, and eventually and more mysteriously his sense of direction and selfhood. As he gets schooled, Van Horn’s sentimental education is a descent into a nowhereland. What might have been an artied-up genre film now takes the turn-off to the existential oblique, the same poetic surfaced territory as the Antonioni of Red Desert and The Passenger. A surfing of surfaces.”