Tuesday, June 08, 2010

BIFF ’10: Survival Song

Once it was the peasants who were held up as a revolutionary model for China’s urban citizenry. Times have changed. When the city of Harbin faced water shortages, the Chinese government callously displaced rural communities to build a new reservoir. One former forest ranger tries to eke out a subsistence living from this abandoned land, but finds himself a constant target of government harassment in Yu Guangyi’s documentary Survival Song, now screening during the 2010 Brooklyn International Film Festival.

A college educated military veteran, Han has been reduced to squatting and poaching after the government flooded his land to create the reservoir. Living with his wife and mentally questionable farm hand Xiao Li, they manage to keep starvation at bay. Ironically, the government is now trying to catch the former warden illegal hunting wild game, when not turning up at his derelict logging camp looking for bribes. Government indifference and neglect would be a significant improvement for Han. Yet, despite his bitter resentment, he still gets emotional when discussing his time in the military.

Like most independent films produced by the so-called D-Generation (D for Digital), Song eschews conventional documentary techniques, like voice-overs and talking head interviews, instead capturing an unfiltered fly-on-the-wall perspective on its subjects’ daily lives. It leaves little doubt how mean and difficult existence truly is for them. Those not prepared for the D-Generation’s unhurried pacing and scrupulously faithful presentation of conditions as they are, might find the film a challenge in more ways than one. However, for those who really want to understand life for the marginalized in China, the work of filmmakers like Yu is absolutely essential.

Given his background, Han should be part of the middle class establishment. Instead, he is an outlaw, who forcefully bemoans the policies of a government, arguing they will eventually force people to rise up. Viewers will not hear such explicitly revolutionary sentiments in mainstream media (both in the U.S. and China), unless they seek out films like Song.

While much of Yu’s film conveys a tactile sense of reality for the disenfranchised in China, it does have narrative arc, as conditions go from bad to worse for Han. The picture that emerges is not pretty, but it is honest. For those with an adult attention span, it is a brutally compelling window into modern China. Part of a crucially important movement, Song is an important film worth seeking out. It screens again during the festival this coming Sunday (6/13) at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.