Chinese documentaries @IDFA


The Fourth Brother by Tong Xu

This dark, black-and-white documentary is an intimate portrait of a man who has spent half his life in prison. Following his release, he is now back to his old tricks in an industrial city in northeastern China. We are introduced to him by his sister, who visits him in the house where he lives with his wife. She explains that Fourth Brother (“Si Ge”), as she calls him, disappeared when she was seven or eight and they only met again 20 years later. The camera follows the brother in his exploits and records his elaborate descriptions of pickpocketing techniques and stories about how he ended up in jail: a game of Mahjong got out of hand and turned into a fight involving Fourth Brother’s gang, and people got killed. In jail, he managed to avoid police bullying and outright torture by the highly inventive but nonetheless gruesome method of self-mutilation. But now there is drinking and smoking and laughing to be done, and at times the viewer forgets for a moment just how hopeless this existence really is.

Mothers by Huijing Xu



Zhang Qing-mei is the director of Woman’s Care, a birth control center in a small Chinese village. At other times the village loudspeaker would be blaring with the sung and spoken praises of Chairman Mao, but she uses it to marshal women to check their compulsory IUDs. The powers that be have announced a change to the quota and twice as many women will have to be sterilized, meaning the single child policy is now exerting an even tighter grip on the village. Those who don’t cooperate have to pay, and those who don’t pay lose their residence and schooling permits for their existing children. We follow Qing-mei and her small group of male co-workers, who include the village’s acting mayor, as they resolutely enforce the policy. They go about their task with all the more dogged determination, now that the increasing proportion of single women means the list for sterilization is shrinking. At the top of the list is Rong-rong, a teacher and mother of two sons, who has already managed to avoid undergoing this painful intervention for a few years. Shots showing the increasing pressure on Rong-rong alternate with indoor scenes in which the mayor conveys his true feelings about the work they are doing. Other interviewees include former directors of Woman’s Care, who paint a picture of the policy throughout the years.

Playing With Shadows by Xiaoyu Niu

In a final attempt to turn his hobby into a job, 27-year old Li Zi, a passionate shadow puppeteer, enrolls in a kind of Chinese X Factor. His mother would rather have him apply for a more lucrative, regular job, because “Girls want to marry a man with a house and a car.” But the optimistic Li Zi is doing all he can to protect the vanishing ancient folk art, despite opposition from authoritarian
Chinese society, his family and even his friends. In these days of economic boom in present-day China, it is no easy matter to follow dreams that go off the beaten track. The film follows Li Zi during the year he loses his innocence. Together with his puppeteer friends, he travels to the TV talent
pageant in Shanghai, and at the national shadow puppetry championship in his hometown of Xi’an, he asks some critical questions about the exclusion of amateur puppeteers. In an interview, Li Zi and two of his fellow puppeteers reflect on the events. Karaoke songs express his mood: in tears, he sings, “All of a sudden I’m a numb old man with no passion, no dreams.”

The Questioning by Rikun Zhu

On July 24, 2012, Rikun Zhu opened the door of his hotel room to find police officers, at least eight of them. While driving earlier that day, he had noticed that he was being followed by officers in plain clothes. Zhu is a human rights activist, and he knew he could count on a hostile reception in Jiangxi province. Other activists have been beaten up here, arrested for no reason and even tortured. So when there was a knock on his door at midnight, he turned on a camera placed on his bedside table before seeing who was there. With the excuse of a “room inspection,” the horde of policemen barges in. Zhu lights a cigarette. A flabby policeman then walks in, showing his badge. He wants to see some ID, but that turns out to be easier said than done.

Tiger Mountain by Jie Wu

This moving documentary gives a voice to the residents of a village in the Chinese countryside that has been polluted by the coal mining industry and now receives no attention whatsoever from the authorities. Here, almost three-quarters of all deaths are caused by lung cancer. The film follows the impoverished villagers for a year-and-a-half as they trudge through their daily existence, which is dominated by polluted water, thick plumes of smoke from the chimneys of the nearby power stations, conversations about sick friends and relatives, funerals, and worries about their children’s future. One of the deathly ill former coal miners is Huaien Wang. He is one of the few who brought his case to court. Research into the causes of the pollution and death rate among the villagers was inconclusive, and promises made to the ousted farmers to share the profits from the power stations, or improve the quality of their environment, were never lived up to. Filmed in HD, this observational account focuses in on Huaien Wang’s family, as well as the smoking chimneys of the coal industry that has changed their lives so dramatically.

Wukan: The Flame of Democracy by James Leong and Lynn Lee

Wukan is a village in the Chinese province of Guangdong, and in 2011, its inhabitants experienced a phenomenon that was unique in this country: democratic elections. This event was so exceptional that it attracted the attention of the international press. The elections didn’t take place without a struggle, however, and there were weeks of protest and the death of an activist leader in the run-up to them. But ultimately the villagers were successful in ejecting the incumbent local Communist government, which had held the seat of power for decades and was accused of irresponsibly selling off Wukan land. The documentary begins when the dust has settled after the uprising, and the demands made in the heat of battle are being fulfilled. Although traces of the pain of battle are still clearly visible, there is now some serious work to be done. Recovering the land is a slow process, and the villagers turn up the pressure on their newly elected committee. Democracy is no guarantee for social calm, and Wukan is a textbook example of the wave of new democracies sweeping across the globe. One villager, red with anger, yells at his new leader, “You are like Egypt’s president Morsi!”

A Tale of the Wind by Marceline Loridan-Ivens and Joris Ivens

A Tale of the Wind

A Tale of the Wind

In their final film, Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan find a playful balance between fiction and documentary. At the beginning of the film, Ivens himself elucidates the story as follows: “At the end of the 19th century, the Old Man, the protagonist of this story, was born in a country where people went to extremes to tame the sea and control the wind. With his camera in hand, he filmed the stormy history of his time. When he is 90, this survivor of documented world wars leaves for China. He has conceived the insane plan to film the invisible wind.” In the film, Ivens plays himself: an aging filmmaker trying to capture the wind. The result is an allegorical fairytale in which numerous characters from Chinese mythology clash with excerpts from Ivens’s rich oeuvre and quotations from A Trip to the Moon by French illusionist and filmmaker George Méliès, in which Ivens himself suddenly has the starring role.

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