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Chinese Mayor, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Trying to make a mark on his city."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2015: Here in Boston, we've recently been threatened with hosting the Olympics, and though the recent experience of the Big Dig should really have the whole city threatening to string up whoever first thought this was a good idea, there's something about the very idea of the transformative public works project that can get one excited regardless. And not only is the one in "The Chinese Mayor" a doozy, but it gives an interesting look at how municipal government works in China.

Specifically, the town of Datong, where mayor Geng Yanbo has an audacious plan to revitalize the most polluted city in China: He intends to rebuild the city wall from when it was the capital 1600 years ago, but doing so will require razing large sections of the city and relocating their residents to a public housing development that is ambitious in its own right. As one might expect, those displaced have a great many issues with this, although Geng is still one of most popular mayors in the city's history.

It's not hard to see why; filmmaker Zhou Hao shadows the longtime public official closely enough that the audience gets a good chance to see him working long hours and generally being a lot more immediately responsive to his constituents' requests than one might expect from a guy who, for security reasons, resides at a military facility. There's a genuine pleasure in watching him light into some contractor who is not delivering the speed or quality expected, and not necessarily behind closed doors.

Would this fly in other places, where the mayor must regularly stand for popular election rather than being more or less appointed by the central government? I'm guessing not, a and that makes the processes on display interesting and instructive; Geng has a great deal of autonomy but is also, in many ways, functionally a manager assigned by the Party rather than a local leader. It makes an election a peculiar spectacle, theater that still seems to carry the risk of upheaval, the sort of process that China's growing international profile suggests might be useful to remember and understand in the future. One lesson that is far from China-specific is how today's lax enforcement should not be assumed to last forever, as those in houses illegally constructed decades ago discover.

That does give Zhou some of the film's most memorable moments, both as people readily complain to the camera about the unfairness of the situation and as the demolition crews close in on the last of the hold-outs. It's striking imagery as a woman's front door opens onto ruble that she must climb over to get to anything else. It's just one way that Zhou seems to visually ponder both Gene's plan specifically and attempts to rebuild history and monetize cultural pride (both fairly common in China right now) in general, whether with shots that show the odd sight of an ancient city being constructed around a modern one or scenes of Geng looking over cultural artifacts brought in from all over to become part of that new old city.

There's also a stunning Chinese New Year celebration that feels like a big finish only to have things shift. The end of the movie is kind of fascinating, because it's not how one might normally end such a film - even in a documentary trying to reflect events, the filmmakers might try and find more footage that builds to it. Instead, we get Geng starting to take interest in the film itself, asking how he came across, hinting that he's got an interest in his own legacy as well as using this transformation as a way to breathe new life into Datong. In some ways, the end almost seems like Zhou acknowledging that we all get caught up in these projects and the people leading them, enough to just not see the whole picture and history.

It's an interesting sort of ambivalence that in retrospect seems to permeate what is still a movie about vision an leadership. There's a fair amount for us outsiders to learn about modern China from "The Chinese Mayor", including how much isn't that much different.

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originally posted: 05/12/15 12:57:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Docs For more in the 2015 AFI Docs Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2015 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

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