years past, if you had to describe China in one word, it would not be “fame.”
State ideology demanded the individual merge into the collective. Only high ranking Party leaders were to be
venerated above the masses. However, the
culture is changing in China, even if the Party is not. In a groundbreaking collaboration with
Broadway, Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama stages the stage musical Fame as an ambitious senior project. Hao
Wu follows the production from rehearsals to the closing curtain and beyond in The Road to Fame (trailer here), which screened
during the 2013 DOC NYC.
bad about show business in America applies in China as well, except maybe more
so. Cronyism is rampant in the
entertainment industry, so a potential showcase like the Fame show can make the difference between a going career and
graduating into has-been status. The
first cut will be brutal, when the faculty determines the “A” and “B”
casts. Naturally, the students
desperately want to make the former rather than the latter. Beyond the obvious stigma, it has yet to be
announced how many performances the “B” cast will be allowed, but assumptions
to viewers’ surprise, the clear can’t-miss-born-to-be-a-star prospective Carmen
Diaz finds herself assigned to the “B” cast. Likewise, the front-running Tyrone Jackson is
edged out by a more self-effacing schoolmate.
As representatives of the Nederlander organization take charge of the
production, the disparity between the A’s and B’s becomes a sore issue.
the surface, Road is a Fame-like documentary about the mounting
of a Fame production, but it reflects
some deep cultural currents. As astute
viewers would expect, all of the POV students are only children. The one-child law was still in full effect at
the time. As a result, every student is highly conscious of their status as the
sole repository of their parents’ hopes, dreams, and retirement plans. Likewise, the corrupt intersection between
public and private sectors has led to widespread disillusionment amongst their
generation. Frankly, the level of irony in a film ostensibly about young people
pursuing their dreams speaks volumes.
Wu is rather circumspect in addressing specific political and economic controversies,
but Vanessa Hope’s short documentary, China
in Three Words (which preceded Road, trailer here) is brimming dysfunctional
case studies. Based on Yu Hua’s book China in Ten Words, Hope examines
contemporary China through the writer’s framework. Yu (whose novel To Live was adapted for film by Zhang Yimou) explains the word “leader”
was once solely reserved for Mao, but has now become ubiquitous. “Revolution” has a heavy history that hardly
needs explaining, while “disparity” is the country’s new fact of life. As a bonus, Yu offers “bamboozle” as a fourth
word, but it arguably relates to all three that came before.
Despite its brevity,
Three Words is brimming with material
that deserves the full feature doc treatment.
Hope’s expose of how corruption and ideology caused the Wenzhou bullet
train collision is grimly fascinating and her footage of Gov. Jon Huntsman returning
to China with his adopted daughter Gracie Mei to revisit her former orphanage
is unexpectedly touching. It is rather
amazing how much Hope crammed into fifteen minutes. In fact, the films relate to each other quite
directly, with Words providing much
useful context for Road.
It is a shame Road and Words only had
one screening at this year’s DOC NYC, because both have a lot to say and
together they played to a sold-out house. Hao Wu’s feature is an intriguing
generational study that captures some very personal drama, while Words helps explain the macro
circumstances making it all so acute.
Both are highly recommended as the make their way on the festival
circuit, while DOC NYC continues through the 21st at the IFC Center
and the SVA Theatre.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, DOC NYC '13, Documentary, Short Films