The Iron Ministry
Directed by J.P. Sniadecki
Filmed over three years on China’s railways, The Iron Ministry traces the vast interiors of a country on the move: flesh and metal, clangs and squeals, light and dark, and language and gesture. Scores of rail journeys come together into one, capturing the thrills and anxieties of social and technological transformation. The Iron Ministry immerses audiences in fleeting relationships and uneasy encounters between humans and machines on what will soon be the world’s largest railway network.
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★★★½ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
"We're all out of instant noodles. Also, you are a shoe."
★★★★ review by Michael Strenski on Letterboxd
The Iron Ministry is the first film in many years to begin with an overture. Particularly popular with the opulent studio productions of the 1950s and ’60s, the practice of including an orchestral score as prelude to the narrative was intended to provide gravitas to the proceedings as well as act as a transition from the real world to the cinematic. The overture in The Iron Ministry definitely provides the latter, but unlike films such as Ben-Hur, the music is not grasping at majesty. In fact, it’s not really music. As the droning sound plays out we discover that it is not a string section but the straining sound of metal on metal of a train moving along its tracks.
Filmed between 2011 and 2013, The Iron Ministry takes place entirely on trains traversing through China on the world’s largest railway network. The film is another project released under the Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose ascendence among cinephiles has been astronomical in recent years, thanks to a string of well-received releases such as Leviathan and Sweetgrass. The Ethnography Lab’s immersive documentaries have provided some of the most unexpected thrills in cinema as of late and The Iron Ministry is no exception. The film does not possess the formal rigor of something like the glorious gondola ride of Manakamana but that is not what this subject calls for. In fact, it needs the opposite, an embracement of movement and messiness.
(Full review at Seattle Screen Scene.)
★★★★ review by preston on Letterboxd
Bold and tricky, with a faith in avant-garde abstraction as relief from its full-on immersion in humanity. The first 10 minutes are wordless, the first 3 minutes image-less (just sounds of trains clanking and grinding), then comes a series of observed marvellous moments - a carriage festooned with animal parts; a stream of vendors climbing aboard the train with unfeasibly huge loads slung over their shoulders; a sleeping woman slumped next to a small table cluttered with debris - then, after a paean to China's enlightened policy on ethnic minorities that's clearly being spouted for the benefit of the visiting filmmaker (who's just admitted to being American), Sniadecki starts divulging his own role, immediately following that scene with two scenes where the camera is turned away by a guard then offered food by a passenger. Beautifully measured and edited, often mesmerising, and it may err a little on the side of on-the-nose, China Today conversations (I preferred Leviathan, which had no agenda) but it's also full of half-glimpsed asides, like the possibly criminal young man rudely awakened by a ticket inspector - and indeed even the talking heads are beautiful, from the irrepressible young woman talking of 14-hour days in a handbag factory to the quiet Tibetan and her ancient prophecy of a world ruled by iron-clad horses. Shot over 3 years but it feels like a single journey, which may be its greatest achievement.
★★★★ review by Lorenzo Benitez on Letterboxd
An engrossing immersion into the lives of the anonymous who traverse the vastness of China. With the country's exponential growth now slowing, leaving in its wake a modern, industrialized economy, films like The Iron Ministry act as important historical records of the more mundane, but nonetheless fascinating aspects, of daily life at this stage in the nation's development.
Filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki's sympathetic curiosity organically directs our attention from one scene to the next, eliciting memorable revelations about contemporary China: everything from how a Muslim Chinese feels about maintaining his faith, to a group of young peoples' good-humored irritation with antiquated marriage customs.
But it isn't just merely the conversations between the passengers that hold our interest -- the way that Sniacdecki silently captures life on the train itself, whether it be of people smoking between the carriages or just gazing at the cityscapes being passed, animates familiar images with symbolic resonance to neither condemn nor condone globalization, but to make it noticeable again.
Indeed, here we have an intensely observant documentary whose aesthetic appreciation of uncovering profundity within mundanity makes it a vivid ethnographic document of a nation as it joins the ranks of the rest of the Western world.
★★★★ review by Sam C. Mac on Letterboxd
"You can fool people by telling them, 'You're only a tiny speck.'"
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