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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Documentary, Sundance '15