Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sundance ’15: The Chinese Mayor

Mayor Geng Yanbo’s re-election is guaranteed, but that does not mean his position is secure. Such is the nature of power in the Chinese Communist Party. His vision for the northern Shanxi city Datong is grandly ambitious, but his intraparty people skills are a little iffy. That is a combination that leads to conflict in Zhou Hao’s The Chinese Mayor, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

When we first meet “Demolition” Geng, he has already resettled tens of thousands of families to make way for his large-scale construction plans. To restore the city’s centuries old glory, Geng has been razing the old, economically depressed neighborhoods to build a brand spanking new “ancient” quarter, including an imposing city wall. It is a development program that drips with irony. There was a time the CCP tore down cultural landmarks out of ideological zeal, but now they are building up replicas of imperial glory.

Geng’s scheme to convert Datong’s stalling industrial sector into a hub of culture and tourism might be debatable, but his constituents seem to appreciate the fact that he has a plan. Likewise, much can be said for and against his leadership style. He can be high-handed and severe, demonstrating a true Communist’s regard for property rights, but he is also unusually accessible for petitioners with a grievance against the city government. When he dresses down subordinates, they mostly have it coming. In fact, one sequence in which he chastises a contractor for sub-standard cement work brings to mind the shoddy construction techniques revealed in producer Zhao Qi’s Sichuan earthquake documentary, Fallen City.

Arguably, Zhou’s strictly observational approach leaves viewers somewhat unprepared for the third act surprises, even though Geng clearly comes across as the kind of politician who makes enemies. It is hard to fully take stock of his administration, but it is probably safe to assume he is preferable to the alternatives. Yet, some of the film’s most revealing scenes document his sham re-election at a local Party conference. It was certainly an economical process: one single candidate for each office. Of course, that is exactly the sort of meaningless democracy the Hong Kong Umbrella movement was protesting against, making Zhou’s Chinese Mayor a fitting feature to screen with Flora Lau’s short film, I Am Hong Kong.

Geng does not exactly have JFK levels of charisma, but he is probably the only Chinese government official willing to let a documentary film crew follow him for months at a time. In the process of documenting Geng’s tenure, Zhou captures some revealing behind-the-scenes glimpse at CCP political sausage-making. Recommended for those fascinated by the corruption and dysfunction of the secretive Mainland government, The Chinese Mayor screens again this morning (1/28), Friday (1/30), and Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Thursday (1/29) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.