Thursday, June 17, 2010

LAFF ’10: 1428

For China, the earthquake that devastated Sichuan province on May 12, 2008 has been like Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill combined. It has laid bare public corruption and put the local and national authorities on the defensive. Like Katrina, it has also been widely documented in films like the Oscar nominated short China’s Unnatural Disaster and Du Haibin’s feature 1428 (trailer here), the winner of the 66th Venice Film Festival’s Best Documentary Award, which screens this coming Sunday and Monday at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival.

At 14:28 hours (2:28 pm) China was hit with what is considered the nineteenth worst earthquake in history just three months before the Beijing Olympics were scheduled to open. The Communist government’s official response has been controversial to say the least. Despite the quake’s severity, many suspect it would not have been as deadly had government construction been less shoddy, particularly at schools. Promises have been made to Sichuan survivors, usually by politicians orchestrating media ops, but the delivery of relief has been slow and problematic.

Du focuses his lens on the haunted faces of Sichuan’s dispossessed. They live in shanty towns and temporary housing, enduring shortages of food and power. Many would like to return home, but following a truly perverse plan of action, the government has begun demolishing houses that withstood the quake. Such is the efficiency of China’s emergency management. For many survivors, it appears all the authorities have to offer is an opportunity to wave at the Premier’s tour bus as his motorcade blows through town.

Stylistically compatible with China’s so-called D-Generation (D for Digital), Du eschews conventional documentary techniques, like formal interviews and voiceover narration. Instead, he lets the camera roll capturing the unfiltered reality of the quake’s aftermath at intervals of ten and two hundred ten days after the disaster. It is not pretty.

There is clearly a lot of anger in Sichuan that survivors do not seem to know how to express. One frustrated old man offers perhaps the most direct censure of the government, complaining: “The policies of the Communist Party are good in essence but they have been carried out wrongly.” In fact, the survivors seen in 1428 are much more guarded in their grievances than the grieving parents featured in Unnatural. Of course, it is worth bearing in mind Du’s footage was shot a mere nineteen years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, so he might well have been more circumspect in what he choose to include, for his subjects’ sake.

Like many of the D-Generation films, 1428 obliquely criticizes the Chinese Communist government from a perspective that would be considered left of center in the west. One elderly Taoist mystic (with much prompting) links the earthquake to the lack of observance of the Earth-God (perhaps implying a corresponding paucity of respect for the Earth by extension). However, the most heartbreaking footage of 1428 involves bereaved parents searching for the remains of their missing children amid the wreckage of their schools.

1428 is an eye-opening dose of reality, straight-up without any external editorializing. It is not the popular image of contemporary China the government has worked to cultivate. In truth, it does require some patience (though not as much as Du’s previous film Umbrella) because it so scrupulously represents life as it is for the Sichuan survivors. Highly illuminating, it is definitely recommended to anyone in the City of Angels when it screens at the LA Film Fest Sunday (6/20) and Monday (6/21).