Saturday, September 05, 2009

Persecution in China: Sandstorm

Since 1992, an estimated one hundred million people have adopted the Falun Dafa or Falun Gong teachings, despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party. Thanks to the internet, stories of the government’s repression and torture have started leaking into the western press. Writer-director Michael Mahonen suggests the CCP’s program of repression has taken a toll not just on Falun Gong practitioners, but on Chinese society as a whole in Sandstorm (trailer here), a very independent film now playing in New York.

Hetian Ying has a truly awful job. A mid-level police officer, it is his job to break the practitioners rounded up by the force. His boss wants results, and does not care if prisoners are killed in the process. Forced to work late hours, committing acts of brutality that weigh on his conscience, his professional life has even started to affect his time with his wife Tong Mou and daughter Mei Mei. Suddenly, the solace he finds with his family is threatened by a freak sandstorm.

Unable to reach Mei Mei’s school in the storm, Hetian Ying must endure his wife’s silent rebukes, while watching her slowly deteriorate without her necessary medication. Their food is also running out and most of their furniture has been sacrificed in cooking fires. Isolated in their home without power, water, or phone lines, the policeman is forced to wrestle with his guilt stemming from a recent case.

A middle-aged school teacher practitioner was picked up on a tip from his wife. In words that haunt him, she warned the officer that if he continued on his current path, it would have terrible consequences for him and his family. Now it seems he is on the receiving end of a cosmic reckoning. You know what they say about karma. Indeed, it is.

While Sandstorm includes scenes of torture that might disturb highly sensitive viewers, it is actually surprisingly restrained in its graphic depictions of Communist human rights abuses. The film could have dramatized far worse documented cases of the torture, murder, and even organ harvesting of practitioners. However, Mahonen (a practitioner himself) refrains from simply waving the bloody shirt. Instead, Sandstorm makes the point that those who commit acts of oppression ultimately debase themselves, rather than those they seek to subjugate.

Though obviously shot on a shoestring, Mahonen makes good use of his claustrophobic setting. There are no Twister-like weather effects, but the sight of the increasingly barren home effectively evokes the emptiness of his characters’ souls. Sandstorm’s cast, consisting entirely of practitioner-volunteers, is for the most part quite convincing, particularly Rong Tian and Zeng Ziyu as Mei Mei’s distraught parents, who each go through considerable transformations during the course of Sandstorm. On-screen throughout every scene, Rong Tian has a quietly intense presence that is especially notable.

Sandstorm ends on a somewhat pat note that some viewers might have difficulty accepting, but Mahonen’s handling of both the torture scenes and the wider suggestions of celestial payback are deftly understated. Intimate in scope, Sandstorm still casts much needed light on the CCP’s thuggish practices. Now running for a one-week limited engagement at Cinema Village, it opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles next Friday (9/11).