Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Xu Tong's Relentless Gaze – Shattered

This is the last of my posts reviewing Chinese work from this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival - apologies that it has taken so long to get all of these up online.

Old Tang and his daughter Tang Caifeng, in Xu Tong's latest documentary Shattered.

Independent Chinese documentaries are not known for their easy, upbeat tone, and few present a more confronting vision of China's lower depths than director Xu Tong. Last October I wrote about his Fortune Teller, a grueling look at the life of a crippled itinerant fortune teller and his deaf, mute, mentally impaired wife as they wandered around China's north. Among that film's cast of characters was a tough brothel owner named Tang Caifeng, who disappeared at the end of the film following her arrest during a crackdown on the sex trade. Fortune Teller's sequel, Shattered, which premiered at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, catches up with Tang Caifeng a year later, as she returns to her father's home in China's far northeast.

Like Fortune Teller, Shattered pulls no punches in portraying the social atomisation of Chinese society under the stratifying forces of a rabid state-run capitalism. The new film casts contemporary society against a historical backdrop through a series of interviews with Caifeng's 80 year-old father, a retired railway worker who speaks candidly about the socialist era and the changes in China since Mao's death.

Old Tang's house is like a museum, with portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels, Mao and Lin Biao adorning the walls. Despite renouncing his Communist Party membership in 1958, Tang's memories offer a strong riposte to the official version of China's history now peddled by the party, which claims the entire country rejoiced at the introduction of market reforms in the late 1970s and has joyfully advanced into an ever-more prosperous future ever since. Old Tang recalls that the dissolving of the communes under Deng Xiaoping brought intense anxiety to the countryside as peasants wondered how they would survive individually. He also says that the day Hua Guofeng – Mao's successor and the man who brought the Cultural Revolution to an end by arresting the “Gang of Four” – came to power was the day the nation “returned to the era of old China... 50 years of planting the roots of socialism were ripped out overnight.”

Old Tang's memories are contrasted with the dog-eat-dog contemporary world inhabited by his daughter Caifeng. In one telling sequence her father jokingly announces Caifeng has been made captain of an imaginary train, which immediately prompt his daughter to ask for a bribe for a sleeper berth. When Old Tang “dismisses her from office,” she exclaims, “What's wrong with me?” with mock indignation. “I'm following the spirit of our Communist Party!”

Out in the real world Caifeng meets “Brother Wu,” and is deeply impressed by his ownership of an illegal coal mine raking in RMB 2-3,000 a day (many rural workers in China earn no more than a few thousand RMB a year). Illegal mining is endemic in China and thousands of miners die every year in shafts lacking even rudimentary safety precautions. None of this seems to bother Caifeng, who becomes an enthusiastic investor in Wu's venture until intertitles tell us the mine is discovered and closed by police. Caifeng rounds up a group of thugs and has the man who reported the illegal operation beaten until he is permanently disabled. “He deserved to be dead,” she comments to Xu Tong.

Meanwhile back at home Old Tang's family is mired in dysfunction. All his sons are trapped in unhappy marriages, and over a tense new year's dinner the family goes into meltdown. “He regards himself like Mao Zedong,” one of the sons later says of his father. “He's so arrogant.” We never get a firm sense of what lies behind these familial tensions, however, and it remains unclear if the sons' resentments are really inspired by Old Tang's behaviour or are imply a generalised expression of rage at their impoverished living conditions.

Much else remains hazy in Xu's film, not least the filmmaker's position in relation to the confronting scenes he captures. There is the question, for example, of how he responds to Caifeng's brutality. While Xu can't be held responsible for the violence Caifeng arranges to have perpetrated on others, the filmmaker appears to have a quite close relationship with the woman and her family. Did he really sit back and do nothing when she arranged to have a man beaten half to death? Did he really say nothing when she proudly recounted this incident to camera? If his response was as blank as his film implies, doesn't that make Xu complicit in her actions? Especially since he is rendering Caifeng's personality and actions as a spectacle by filming them for his documentary.

Linked to this ethical ambiguity is Xu's framing of peasant life. Like the endless scenes of the fortune teller's mentally impaired wife vomiting and dribbling over herself in his last film, I really couldn't see the point of scenes like Caifeng's de-waxing of her father's ears, in which we see her happily scooping out huge chunks of embedded wax with a little metal spoon. Similarly, a prolonged family argument about Old Tang's masturbating and a scene in which a pig is slaughtered seemed calculated to shock more than anything else. Xu must be aware how these scenes will look to his audience – who like him are mainly urban, educated and relatively well off compared to the people on screen. By constantly homing in on aspects of rural life that he knows will likely make this audience squirm, I feel like Xu is – perhaps unconsciously – pandering to the disparaging view of rural life commonly held by Chinese urbanites.

Old Tang and Tang Caifeng in Xu Tong's Shattered.

I'm not suggesting Xu should “pretty up” his portraits to match an urban sensibility – I just think there is a difference between engaging with your subject's situation and way of life, and blankly dwelling on those aspects you know will cast them in a poor light in the eyes of many of your viewers. I always end up feeling uncomfortable with Xu's films because I feel like he looks at his subjects with the detached ethnographic gaze of an educated, middle class urbanite fascinated with the “primitive” life of China's poor – a perspective that can't help but end up being condescending towards his subjects.

UCCA in Beijing’s 798 art zone hosted a season of Xu Tong’s work last month, and you can read a more sympathetic account of the filmmaker's approach to documentary in an article Time Out Beijing ran to coincide with the screenings.

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