Thursday, January 04, 2018

First Look ’18: Last Days in Shibati

In today’s China, opinions on hutongs vary drastically. Some view them as embarrassing reminders of the nation’s darker days that should be bulldozed as soon as possible. However, many of the remaining residents recognize they are a real community, with more neighborly cohesion that the glass and steel apartment towers sprouting like weeds. Chongqing’s Shibati hutong is scheduled for demolition, but many residents are determined to hang on as long as they can. French filmmaker Hendrick Dusollier documents the slow destruction of a community over six-month intervals in Last Days in Shibati (trailer here) which screens during this year’s First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Not everyone welcomes Dusollier and his camera to Shibati, but those who do become his fast friends. When he first arrives, the hutong is still full of life, even though it is grossly impoverished and lacking consistent infrastructure, especially electricity. Ironically, the posh shopping mall romantically named Moonlight City is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the bowels of Shibati.

During the course of his repeat visits, Dusollier focuses on three figures: seven-year-old Zhou Hong, his self-appointed fixer; Mr. Li, a barber with enough low-level political connections to be one of the last forced out; and Ms. Xue Lian, a kindly garbage-picker, who also runs a dorm-style hostel for migrant workers. Basically, Dusollier captures the realities of their lives, occasionally interrupting for a little Q&A, but all three are so charismatic and engaging, viewers will immediately get sucked into their world.

To his credit, Dusollier includes plenty of reality checks regarding the quality of life in old Shibati. There is no question residents were due for some improvements. Nevertheless, those who admonish Dusollier to “show something positive for a change” are really just as blinkered as the biased perspective they project onto him. Frankly, when they shout such protests at him while he follows Ms. Xue, it rather makes the blood boil. It is hard to imagine any more positive than her (and beautiful too, she must have been something else during the prime she never had a chance to enjoy).

Often, Dusollier captures telling reminders that even if the government makes good on its relocation promises (in buildings way on the outskirts of town), the former Shibatians will never be socially accepted by “proper” Chongqingers. As a result, Last Days becomes increasingly bittersweet, with an emphasis on the bitter.

Last Days is a mere sixty-minutes, but it is surprisingly moving. We definitely feel like we know Dusollier’s three main subjects—and we really start to miss them when the film ends. It is a crying shame the government could not invest in upgrades to the Shibati community, rather than just razing it to the ground, but the urban renewal project probably entailed some jolly nice bribe money. Deeply elegiac and oddly beautiful, Last Days in Shibati is very highly recommended when it screens this Sunday (1/7) with The Lives of Therese, as part of First Look 2018, at MoMI.