The Chinese Mayor
Directed by Zhou Hao
Once the thriving capital of Imperial China, the city of Datong now lies in near ruins. Not only is it the most polluted city in the country, it is also crippled by decrepit infrastructure and even shakier economic prospects. But Mayor Geng Tanbo plans to change all that, announcing a bold, new plan to return Datong to its former glory, the cultural haven it was some 1,600 years ago. Such declarations, however, come at a devastatingly high cost. Thousands of homes are to be bulldozed, and a half-million of its residents (30 percent of Datong’s total population) will be relocated under his watch. Whether he succeeds depends entirely on his ability to calm swarms of furious workers and an increasingly perturbed ruling elite. The Chinese Mayor captures, with remarkable access, a man and, by extension, a country leaping frantically into an increasingly unstable future.
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★★★★ review by Jaime Grijalba on Letterboxd
The Chinese Mayor (2015)
I have to write a review of this film, so just a couple of notes:
· While it doesn't dare to do much more, for obvious reasons, I think that this might be the most honest portrayal of modern China this side of the sixth or seventh generation, which is already critical in its own way. This isn't Ai Weiwei, but it doesn't need to be.
· I love the presence of someone behind the camera taking decisions and not to try to emulate some sort of "fly in the wall" style that would've never worked.
★★★½ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
Everyone is awful.
★★★★ review by Shaun Munro on Letterboxd
Hao Zhou’s impressively probing documentary is sure to leave audiences conflicted about its controversial central figure, and in the process raises provocative questions about the nature and methodology of “progress” at any and all costs.
As the opening titles explain, Datong was the capital of imperial China in the 1600s, but today, coal mining has made it the country’s most polluted city, and many of its residents live in abject poverty. Its divisive Mayor, Geng Yanbo, wants to make Datong great again by rebuilding a significant portion of the city as a cultural, tourist-baiting haven, relocating 500,000 people in the process. Many locals naturally aren’t thrilled about retroactively having their homes deemed “illegal” residences, and push back against him.
Credit to Zhou for crafting a politically incisive doc which, at first glance, appears to be unapologetically biased, with Yanbo’s displacement of residents making for disturbing and infuriating viewing, painting him as something of a tyrant. Incredible on-the-ground coverage of people being literally torn from their homes moments before they’re demolished paints a harrowing, vivid picture of the cost of Yanbo’s project, and it’s difficult not to view the man as another apathetic bureaucrat utterly devoid of perspective and empathy.
Even early on, though, it’s hard not to admire his ambition and industrious work ethic, and the film does a fine job touching on the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” nature of politicking. Viewers may struggle to identify with the mayor’s bizarre cultural fetishism – a concept that’s decidedly more alien to western audiences, no doubt – though one telling interview later on at least somewhat explains his beliefs, even if viewers likely still won’t agree with him.
After a point there’s a subtle but crucial shift in the film’s tone, as the mayor’s challenging personal life – or rather, his lack of it – is explored, namely his brutal sleep schedule and perpetually frustrated wife. This is accented by a rather ironic twist of fate late in the day, an excellent example of how politics can draw harsh dividing lines, and its oft-nebulous, cloudy nature can cause a populous to shift their allegiances when faced with a more damning status quo than the present one. Simply, Yanbo’s humanity and his methods are decidedly more understandable by the end than they were 80 minutes prior.
Even so, it’s hard not to scoff and scowl at the Chinese political system, be it the perversely comical “election” system (in which candidates simply vote for themselves as “one candidate out of one”), or the power of machines both literal and not; seeing a woman talking about appealing against her home’s demolition and the subsequent cut to it destroyed 3 days later is jarring in the most brilliantly horrifying way.
An under-the-radar doc which undeniably deserves more attention, The Chinese Mayor is likely to evoke contradictory feelings in most viewers, delivering an incendiary yet unexpectedly well-rounded portrait, which isn’t easy to do in 85 minutes.
★★★★ review by Jaime Grijalba on Letterboxd
The Chinese Mayor (2015)
This is the review I wrote for Twitchfilm.com
The documentary scene in China is difficult to approach, especially when so many of the works are strictly forbidden to be shown there. With so many independent film festivals being banned and even raided by Chinese government officials, it's truly amazing to see a film that manages to not only approach one of those officials, interview him and even portray him as not a completely glowing figure, but one that has its shades of darkness. The Chinese Mayor is not inherently a problematic film, but it is one that is faithful to what happens in front of the camera, and doesn't shy away because of fear to authority or any prohibition that could be issued against it.
The movie follows a mayor with a vision, Geng Yangbo, mayor of Datong, which was at one time the capital of China and one of the most richly historic cities. It has now fallen to disgrace after being considered the most polluted city in China (and hence, one of the most polluted in the world), but Geng Yangbo has the dream of turning it again into a cultural and at the same time modern city, that mixes both the cultural history and the modern life of China. Lamentably, to do that he has to demolish houses lived in by 30% of the population of the city, and that's where most of the conflict in this movie comes from.
The camera follows the mayor in his daily works, that seem to be endless. He starts a meeting here, and then goes in terrain, and supervises the departments that he is giving to the people that are being transferred from their demolished houses. At the same time some groups of people plead for his presence, camping in front of the government house, and much to my surprise he actually comes out the gate and helps the people. I guess there's no real need to be afraid in a country like China, where after years of the same kind of government, they don't expect some sort of revolution, especially from people that you're trying to help.
It is mentioned by some of the citizens that he actually is the best mayor that they've had, but this documentary isn't a hagiography, as it moves many times from that focus to point to the people that don't have a chance to be in one of the new departments, either because of the location of their house, or the way that it was built, or how the papers are missing. These things prevent them from even going to "cheap" housing, especially those poor in the suburbs, where a giant wall is being built. Geng Yangbo is compared by one of his critics to the emperor that built the Great Wall of China, who history now considers a tyrant.
The film presents both sides of the coin, while also deciding to not put out moments like the times when the mayor asks for the camera to not record or to not come with him on a car trip or a reunion. All this, combined with the beautiful shots of the city as well as the dreadful sights of the destruction of families and houses, comes together as a landscape of the city and its time while under the government of Geng Yangbo. It also, quietly, decides to criticize the way in which officials are "elected", where the members of the Party have to vote "out of one candidate". This is filmed without any resistance as they think it's the most normal procedure in the world, which certifies their so-called democracy.
With a powerful voice, The Chinese Mayor doesn't need to be a loud cry to present its themes and questions. At the same time I do think it's necessary to hear a more revolutionary and reactionary voice that is being quieted down by officials. Not many filmmakers are as lucky as Zhou Hao, or have this kind of access, as well as the intelligence to show what it's needed to be shown, and that is something to think about. This is not Ai Weiwei, but it doesn't necessarily need to be, but I will take both voices to compare, contrast and see what's really going on "over there".
★★★★ review by J.S. Lewis on Letterboxd
Near the film’s end, the mayor asks the man behind the camera, “What did you film anyway?” Geng Yanbo, the man perceived as the greatest hope for Datong, a Chinese city with a population of over 3 million, had apparently become so accustomed to documentarian Zhou Hao’s presence that he didn’t realize just how much of his tenure was recorded.
Mayor Geng is keen on celebrating China’s past while pushing people to the future, quite literally with the reconstruction of “Old City” while relocating a third of the population. In public he is flanked by citizens hoping to have their sorrows heard, the more enterprising among them have papers in hand requiring the power of his signature. In boardrooms he has no problem ripping into civil servants if their performance falls short of his exceptional expectations. At one point his emotional wife pulls him out of an important meeting because he’s never at home and sleep-deprived. You can see the evidence all over Geng's face.
The filmmakers certainly get in and around (I only counted two onscreen denials) and through it all they refrain from casting Geng in a positive or negative light. Over the course of this film, my feelings for the Chinese mayor ranged from disfavor to empathy. Mostly, I wanted to see him achieve his insurmountable vision. And for him to finally get some sleep.
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