Monday, October 11, 2010

Zhang Tianhui – A Documentary Talent to Watch

Gong Fenghai on Tiananmen Square in Zhang Tianhui's Farewell, Beijing.
 It's not often you stumble upon an exciting new talent completely unexpectedly, but during the National Day “Golden Week” holiday here in Beijing I attended a few screenings at Ou Ning's “Get It Louder” festival and came across two of the most poignant and affecting locally-produced documentaries I've seen for some time: The 7th Medical Ward and Farewell, Beijing, both by the young Beijing-based director Zhang Tianhui.
The 7th Medical Ward is a sensitive portrayal of damaged lives in a facility that's home to a range of mentally disturbed patients in the southeastern city of Xiamen. Despite the grim subject matter, Zhang captures a surprising sense of community among the patients and nurses, even if the staff appeared to lack any real training in how to deal with the patients' illnesses. The most disturbing aspect of life on the ward was the fact many of the patients seem to have simply been dumped by the police and/or their families, with no attempt made to treat their conditions or to help them find a place in society.

We meet a young Uyghur boy nicknamed Xinjiang, for example, who was kidnapped as a child and can no longer remember his family or exactly where he came from. Although obviously traumatised by his experiences, he appears basically sound of mind. But with nowhere to go and no-one to treat his trauma, he seems destined to spend the rest of his years in the hospital.

Zhang's film is both heartwarming and haunting, treating the personalities of the patients and nurses with great sympathy while quietly laying bare the dire state of psychiatric care in China.

Poster for Zhang Tianhui's The 7th Medical Ward.
The second of Zhang's films screened at Get It Louder was Farewell, Beijing, a feature length documentary focusing on a group of “zhiqing” (educated youths), urban students sent to the countryside by Mao during the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” From 1968 until Mao's death in 1976, hundreds of thousands of young people were sent into what amounted to internal exile in remote parts of China, spending most of their youths cut off from their families in harsh conditions they were ill-prepared for. The majority trickled back into the cities after 1976, but as Farewell, Beijing shows, there are some who never returned home.

At the outset we meet a group of aging Beijingers who were sent to Yan'an in 1968-69, a remote outpost in Shaanxi Province, Western China, that was the Communist's base from the end of the Long March until the late stages of the Civil War. For various reasons the men Zhang interviews never returned to the capital – some had no desire to return to Beijing and take care of aging parents, while others simply had nowhere to live with Beijing's inadequate housing levels at the time of Mao's death.

As Zhang introduces their lives in Yan'an, we hear reminiscences about their difficult lives in the 1960s and 70s, expressed with emotions ranging from nostalgia to resentment and confusion about Mao's legacy and the ideological u-turns the country has undergone since his death.

Gradually the film zeroes in on Gong Fenghai, a divorcee who still maintains an admiration for Mao and can't understand the individualistic ethos of contemporary China. Despite his positive appraisal of the Maoist era and the four decades he has spent living in Yan'an, Gong wishes to return home to Beijing, and at Chinese New Year 2009 he sets out to try and find a place in the capital.

Gong's quest is by turns moving and comical, as he looks up old friends and family who generally seem less than thrilled to see him. Returning to the neighbourhood he grew up in, he finds the narrow alleys strewn with rubbish and the “chai” character denoting planned demolition scrawled on the sides of the dilapidated houses. Many of his old neighbours have already moved on and his aging relatives greet him either with caution or outright anger – his sister even threatens to set her dog on him at one point, and refuses pointblank to let Gong use her address in his application for a Beijing residency permit.

When Gong does locate a few neighbours of his own age who still live in the area, he seems desperate for validation of their experiences as zhiqing. The others returned to Beijing decades earlier, however, and few seem to regard their time away with much fondness. When one of Gong's friends calmly states that he doesn't agree China should cling to the ideals of the Maoist era, Gong doesn't argue – he just looks quietly stricken.

Later Gong visits Tianamen Square, where Zhang skillfully interweaves contemporary scenes with newsreel footage of fanatical Red Guards worshipping Mao. The Red Guard's crazed expressions and blind acquiescence to Mao's commands make it difficult to sympathise with Gong's emotional investment in the era, but at the same time there is great pathos in his sense of loss and disorientation in the face of the brazenly materialistic modern capital.

Eventually Gong returns to Yan'an, the loneliness of his present existence contrasted with the collectivism of his youth, as his solitary departure is intercut with footage of the mass farewells that accompanied the departure of the "educated youths" in the late 1960s.

Gong's story challenges our assumptions about the Cultural Revolution in the West and the current Chinese leadership's almost blanket dismissal of the period. Although the era was undoubtedly terrible for intellectuals, the attitude of many ordinary Chinese people is often more complicated, and some look back fondly on the unity and sense of purpose they feel Mao's leadership provided. Understandably, many also feel conflicted about having given much of their youth to an ideology they have since been told to forget.

Zhang's great strength as a filmmaker is his ability to evoke these nuances through the very individualised and engaging stories. With warmth and a fair dash of humour, the characters of The 7th Medical Ward and Farewell, Beijing effectively dramatise a widespread sense of rootlessness and anxiety that underlies a society changing so fast, and so drastically, that it often feels devoid of any emotional or philosophical bearings.

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