Saturday, November 12, 2016

DOC NYC ’16: The Beekeeper and his Son

Despite some modern developments, the principle of beekeeping remains pretty much the same. Bees in a comb produce honey. Perhaps that is why it appeals to the traditional seventy-something “Lao” Yu Yangui, but not so much to his restless son Yu Maofu. The son has just returned from a year studying and working in a big city, but it will be an awkward homecoming for the Yu family, as Diedie Weng documents in The Beekeeper and his Son (trailer here), which screens during DOC NYC 2016.

Having fallen under the sway of urban life and values, the son has notions of creating a boutique honey label. In contrast, the father insists he learn the Beekeeping trade, step by customary step. They do not just argue over beekeeping. Pigsty maintenance issues practically bring them to DEFCON one. Although she pretends to be impartial, Maofu’s mother Chengnuo Chang clearly sides with her son. Meanwhile, old Yu struggles with his own filial issues when he faces his distant ninety-year-old mother’s increasing infirmity and dementia.

Beekeeper certainly captures the generational gap in contemporary China, but it only hints at the rural versus urban disparities. It is very micro in its focus, unlike Tianlin Xu’s thematically related Coming and Going. Nor does it have the same urgency as Fan Jian’s My Land, which captures the relentless campaign to evict a family of migrant share-croppers (and also features a goose on its one-sheet). However, old Yu emerges as a keenly compelling, somewhat contradictory figure: doting grandfather, stern father, argumentative husband, guilt-ridden son.

There have been a lot of documentaries focusing on the plight of exploited migrant workers and thee hardscrabble rural poor. Arguably, Beekeeper is more accessible than some of Wang Bing’s three-hour-plus documentaries, but it does not have the strong narrative structure of others, such as My Land.

Beekeeper is a perfectly respectable film that illustrates many of China’s social tensions on a decidedly personal scale. However, it makes us wonder why My Land has yet to screen in New York, because it is such a viscerally dramatic record of the sort of struggles faced by Chinese agricultural workers, albeit ones working on urban plots of land. It is also completely fair to warn prospective viewers, pacing can be an issue for Beekeeper, even though it clocks in under ninety minutes. Recommended as a journalistic snapshot, The Beekeeper and his Son screens tomorrow (11/13), as part of this year’s DOC NYC.