Composed of three chapters - Voices, Recollections, and Innocence - Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town is a textured, graceful, and indelible panorama of the "other" China, a sobering account of threadbare lives lived in the shadows cast by China's modern day economic miracle and its founding architect, Chairman Mao Zedong, whose imposing statue graces Zhiziluo village's deserted and overgrown town square. Isolated in the mountains of Yunnan Province near the Burmese border, abandoned by Western missionaries after a government purge during the Cultural Revolution, and repeatedly passed over for state-financed development projects since the 1980s, Zhiziluo's few remaining villagers have become figurative ghosts wandering through a rarefied, uncertain landscape in a state of perpetual limbo, searching for transcendence.
In Voices, the ethnic minority Christian community of Lisu and Nu villagers struggle to preserve their faith in the face of emigration, an aging congregation, and cultural despiritualization. But far from a dying culture on the cusp of erasure, what emerges in Voices is a vibrant and devout extended community, reaffirming their faith by returning to their beloved church in an annual pilgrimage to Zhiziluo for a midnight mass to celebrate Christmas with other parishioners.
In Recollections, the face of emigration is embodied by a young couple: one, contemplating moving to the city in search of a better life, the other, increasingly pressured into entering a financially beneficial, arranged marriage (and whose fate is mirrored in the parallel story of a returning Christian pilgrim who has brought her new baby for her first visit to her hometown since being sold into marriage). The dissolution of love is also reflected in the wistful observations of a divorced, alcoholic drifter who pines for his estranged family, even as he continues to alienate himself from their lives with his chronic drinking.
On the other side of village depopulation is the fate on those left behind, the subject of the film's third chapter, Innocence. Abandoned by his family (who, like most working-aged men and women, moved to the city to seek out job opportunities), a twelve year-old boy named Ah Long scavenges for food in the wilderness and tries to retain some semblance of a normal adolescence with his matinee idol pinups, loud music, and wrestling with his playmates. Biding his empty hours participating in a traditional Lisu exorcism ritual, then subsequently attending mass, Ah Long's seemingly incongruous pastime intrinsically reveals what modern China has abandoned in the pursuit of modernization and economic growth: community, family, cultural heritage, and spirituality.