Tuesday, March 2, 2010

True/False Films from China and Mexico

Disorder, dir. Huang Weikai, China, 66 min.

Another one of my favorite films from this year’s festival was the Chinese film Disorder. Director Huang Weikai weaves together 26 “little stories,” themselves the works of amateur videographers, which Weikai collected during 2007 and 2008. Together they provide a glimpse of everyday life in China’s overcrowded cities. The initial montage combines films shot at night, and the second part of the film (the majority of it) are scenes shot in the daytime. All were shot in grainy black-and-white digital media, and all capture the chaos to which the film’s title refers.

In the Q&A following the film, the director talked about China’s rapid urban growth at the expense of the environment, and “all the ridiculous things that are happening,” which the film captures. He said that Chinese viewers of the film find its images very familiar, because “these are things that happen in everyday life that you see all around you” – scenes like an abandoned baby, which the camera spends a great deal of time on, but whom none of the bystanders pick up and rescue from its surroundings, which are covered with litter. The baby is regarded as so much trash – a human being abandoned in a throw-away world.

Not much less disturbing is the man lying in the middle of a busy road at night, while the driver and passenger of a car that ostensibly hit him alternately berate him and offer him money to leave. They insist his “injuries” are an act, that they didn’t hit him, and that they’ve seen this scam before. We don’t know the truth – the camera didn’t capture the initial incident – and like the crowd that eventually gathers, we have to decide whom to believe. For an American viewer, the driver seems callous and heartless; but in the later montage we see an apparently homeless man wandering through traffic, as if waiting to get hit by a car so he can, perhaps, extort money from some unfortunate driver.

Human interaction with nature (such as it is) – with the river, with animals – struck me as odd and jarring much of the time. The spectacle of a truckload of pigs that have escaped onto a highway, with truckers and police trying to capture them and reload them, would surely create a major traffic disturbance anywhere in the world. Bear paws in a dumpster, a pangolin in a cage, are both quite puzzling. A man trying to fish in a sewage ditch seems to have a futile task, but eventually he does catch some fish. The poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation have created extremely dire circumstances for many, like the people whose entire neighborhood (both houses and streets) has flooded because of poor drainage, so that they have to walk down the street in knee-deep water. A crocodile has been found in the city, and it attracts a large crowd as men capture and remove it; it attracts much more attention than the abandoned infant.

Many scenes represent interactions with the police; initially the police seem like a benign, though often ineffective, force; they feed the homeless man who’s been wandering on the highway, they advocate for better treatment for the pigs; they try to negotiate a fair resolution to a dispute over money. But at the end of the film we see a demonstration of police brutality towards an individual, which leads to a near-riot as onlookers get involved and object to the police’s actions. What amazed me the most was the courage of those bystanders willing to get involved, which must be especially difficult under an authoritarian regime. Add to that the courage of the amateur videographers to capture these events on film; and the courage of Huang Weikai to put his name to it and take it around China to film festivals and universities.

Like It Felt Like a Kiss, Disorder involved some pretty amazing film editing work. If anything, Disorder is even more experimental and avant-garde than It Felt Like a Kiss because there is no overarching narrative – no voice-over and no subtitles – to tie it together. The audience has no help from the director in making sense of this seemingly random “found footage.”

Last Train Home, dir. Lixin Fan, China, 87 min.

Also from China, Last Train Home focuses on the economic desperation of families separated by the parents’ need to earn money working in urban factories, while their children stay home in the country with their grandmother. I missed the first half hour of this film, so I’m not in a position to write a review of it, but what I did see was pretty amazing. The train ride home is a nightmarish ordeal, in which seemingly hundreds of thousands of people crowd into a train station where they wait for days to board the train. The children of these poor uneducated workers suffer emotionally from the absence of their parents, and the parents suffer too, but are willing to sacrifice so much so that their children can have a better life. Yet the parents’ constant pressure takes its toll on the children; the older one rebels and quits school; the younger one brings home his school report and the parents say “Fifth in the class? That’s not good enough; last year you were third.”

Those Who Remain, dir. Juan Carlos Rulfo and Carlos Hagerman, Mexico, 96 min.

Poverty’s devastating effect on families is also seen in Those Who Remain, a sweet and poignant film about the families left behind by husbands and fathers who leave Mexico to work in the United States, often for years at a time. The film interweaves the stories of 11 families from all over Mexico. Some men have benefitted substantially from their economic gains, while others have paid with their lives. But in nearly all cases, the fathers’ absences leave the children very sad. We get to know these families, all of whom the filmmakers treat with compassion and respect. The film takes its time, and as American viewers we see a very different aspect of Mexican culture that undermines all the anti-immigrant rhetoric that we are unfortunately bombarded with in our own political climate.

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