Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Chinese Mayor (Hao Zhou, 2014): Mini-Film Review

A standout film for me at Sundance '15 was The Chinese Mayor (see Sundance link here and imdb. link here). This documentary presents an inside look at, with unbelievable access to, the life of the mayor of Datong, China. The mayor, Geng Yanbo, deals with many problems in his city of 3.5 million people, including the fact that it is the most polluted city in China according to the film, but primarily focuses on the demolition of more that 100,000 homes--and the relocation of their residents--in order to make way for the re-construction of the city's ancient wall in order to attract tourists, promote Chinese culture, and improve the economy.

The film is co-written by Zhao Qi, of The Last Train Home and China Heavyweight acclaim, and follows the mayor over two years. When I had a chance to ask Zhao Qi about the film, he stated that the filmmakers were pleased to find a politician who seemed very honest and one who would allow them to film behind closed-doors (although the film also repeatedly shows moments when the filmmakers are told to leave certain rooms).

The Chinese Mayor writer Zhao Qi during the post-screening Q&A at Sundance

But the mayor is not the film's only subject: numerous residents both pro- and anti- Mayor Geng loom into the picture, enabling us to see frustration and corruption alongside hope and good-intentions. The final 5 minutes of the film are astounding and glib--an almost-behind-the-scenes look within a very much behind-the-scenes documentary, ensuring the documentary is memorable. Still, I would say that it does not quite pack the narrative punch of Zhao Qi's previous work, perhaps because it appeals much more to those who focus on Chinese politics rather than a general audience.

The film won the "World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Unparalleled Access" at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

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