Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Angel of Nanjing: Chen Si on Patrol

It often seems like contemporary China has kept the worst from the past and jettisoned the best. Traditional and regional cultures are increasingly marginalized, but the stigma attached to suicide remains in full force. Yet, as the government becomes ever more oligarchical and corrupt, more and more disenfranchised Chinese are committing suicide. The Yangtze River Bridge is a popular spot for many of those final exits. Alarmed by the staggering number of suicides committed there, Chen Si started patrolling the bridge eleven years ago, hoping to stage impromptu interventions and counselling sessions. Jordan Horowitz & Frank Ferendo document the unpaid volunteer at work in Angel of Nanjing (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Chen has no formal training in psychology, but he has a knack for forming fast bonds with strangers. Evidently, he is also a Yankees fan, which speaks well of his judgment. Like many of the would-be suicides he takes under his wing, Chen originally hailed from an impoverished village. Yet, he managed to reinvent himself reasonably well in Nanjing. He has a responsible office job with a logistics firm and an indulgent family. However, he still needs that gig to provide for his wife and daughter, so his patrols are mostly confined to the weekend.

In less than seventy minutes, Horowitz & Ferendo give viewers a full sense of Chen’s personality. He is very much an average, somewhat schlubby guy, who just happens to have an unusually high degree of empathy. Some of his altruistic drive comes from a sense of social and class-based solidarity, but the spirit of responsibility drummed into him by his revered grandmother was clearly his formative influence.

Horowitz & Ferendo prefer to focus on Chen and his clients, which is an understandable strategy, especially given the film’s relative brevity. As result, very little time is devoted to analyzing why suicide is so prevalent in contemporary China and the extent to which the government is cooking the books on suicide statistics goes unremarked. Nevertheless, it is impossible to watch Angel and conclude the events on the bridge are an isolated phenomenon.

Chen is an undeniably compelling figure, well worth spending time with. Clinical psychologists could probably find dozens of faults with his methods (which include pulling people off the ledge and cramming them on passing buses), but it is hard to argue with his results. Horowitz & Ferendo also incorporate significant insights from those saved by Chen’s long term efforts, thereby humanizing them as well. Despite their obviously unfettered access, Angel is executed with a good deal of sensitivity. Highly recommended for those interested in modern go-go China and the more universal mental health issues, Angel of Nanjing releases today (2/16) on VOD platforms, including iTunes.