Chinese Mayor, The (2015)

Review #1,291

Director:  Zhou Hao
Plot:  Follows the life and work of a controversial Chinese Communist Mayor Geng Yangbo to tell the story about how he takes a radical reform to relocate half a million people to give way to restoration of ancient relic walls in the city.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won Special Jury Prize - World Cinema Documentary (Sundance).  Won Best Documentary (Golden Horse).
Runtime:  89min
Rating:  NC16 for some mature content.
International Sales:  Zhaoqi Prods

Zhou Hao, who won two consecutive Golden Horses for Best Documentary for Cotton (2014), and his latest, The Chinese Mayor, is perhaps one of the most respected figures of Chinese independent documentary filmmaking today.  He is a wonderful discovery for me, and if The Chinese Mayor is any indicator, he is also a bold and penetrative filmmaker. 

Zhou's work starts off with dizzying handheld shots that follow a man of seeming importance.  He is Geng Yangbo, the Communist mayor of Datong, a city in China that he plans to change drastically.  The documentary puts you next to Geng, as if you are his invisible right-hand man, giving us remarkable access to the work that he does, his personal life and daily routine, and the townsfolks that he has to appease. 

You see... Geng plans to relocate half a million of people so that he can restore and recreate an ancient wall that would surround, as he would envision, a cultural city.  He has his fair share of supporters and detractors – the relocation process has incurred the wrath of certain low-income communities, though some have benefited from being relocated to bigger living spaces. 

Zhou captures the reactions, struggles and hopes of the Datong people, but more presciently, through Geng's activities, The Chinese Mayor becomes a window of rare privilege unto which China's Communist ideals are laid bare, thus giving us a forecast of the country's social and ideological functions moving forwards. 

In a way, The Chinese Mayor is a critical socio-political work that ought to find more audiences who are concerned about China's mode of doing things.  It is illuminating, and in an odd way, inspiring.  Geng is a man with a great vision, but he is also a human being with doubts.  He is both an enabler and a victim of his country’s political system.

Perhaps this is where Zhou's documentary shines brightest – it is ambiguous about everything.  Is Geng a hero or a villain?  Should we shower him with adulation or sympathize with him?  Is communism really inherently problematic?  Or has democracy in contrast given us false comfort?  A Chinese Mayor doesn't take sides; it merely observes a small part of the world and one man's role in shaping it.  In spite of its ambiguity, or perhaps because of it, what comes out is a sense of clarity.

Verdict:  Puts you right next to the Communist mayor of Datong as he attempts to change his city drastically, giving us remarkable access to how China functions socially and ideologically.


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