First program in a new National Geographic docu series, Phil Agland’s essay on the changes in a small town in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, plays with the dramatic urgency of fiction and the beauty and truths of a sermon. Agland lived with his crew for two years in Yunnan and returned to England to edit his 55 miles of footage, with magnificent results.
After two years of negotiations for permission to film without restrictions, Agland began recording a year in the busy market town of Lijiang — both the old town, with its open markets, wooden buildings and cottage industries, and the new town, which approaches a modern city.
Docu slips cunningly among its subjects, from the open butcher shop and the modern Lijiang Hospital to a remote farm on the flank of Jade’s Dragon Mountain. Teacher Lu, whose wife and children are, like him, members of the Yi minority, visits Lijiang to study for four months. He confers with acupuncturist Tang, whose daughter Lixing helps in his private clinic. Gentle Dr. Tang regrets that his daughter’s not a doctor, since she’s so adept with patients and his health’s failing; he wants the clinic to continue.
He’s also a psychologist for his friend the butcher, Mu, and tends four elderly women who pass threadlike through the film. They kvetch, play cards, wear traditional clothing, eventually sit together happily for their funeral photos. One of this rural Greek chorus smiles, “It’s a relief to be old; all that suffering is behind us.”
Mu’s nephew Asan is stabbed to death by a gang; Agland, observing the Chinese criminal system, follows the police investigation and interrogations down to the sentencings. The murder resounds throughout the small community, creating waves to such an extent that one of the old women takes in 25 policemen as renters so she’ll feel safe.
The sentences are light: Young offenders in China are re-directed so they can cope with unemployment, increasing narcotics, family disintegration. It’s Mu’s job to clean up the blood from where his nephew spilled it when he was slain.
Politics is little discussed. New ways, such as one child per family and the anti-crime drive, are demo’d in the program. New freedom allows a woman with a disabled baby to bear a second child; a blind masseuse hopes to escape her jealous mother so she can be with her blind fiance 2,500 miles away; a Tibetan abandons wife and child to live with his first love, who, sold into marriage, leaves her husband and daughter to be with him.
Drugs, which the Communists had stamped out, have returned — there’s talk heroin was involved in Asan’s death. The Yunnan government shot over 100 drug offenders in one day. A heroin smuggler’s taken through the Lijiang streets to the local theater, where he’s showcased before being escorted to the execution ground.
Glimpses of small-town and rural life are exquisitely photographed, and Charlotte Ashby’s subtitled colloquial translations, aided by Lisa Lu’s helpful narration, fill the bill. Editing is superior, and George Fenton’s score is a delight.
Superb, intricate TV docu surely projects the point of view that “we’re all human.” Filmmaker Agland finds surprising comparisons with people in small towns of the West, despite cultural differences. But while a village in southern China may seem to resemble Grover’s Corners, that’s a stretch.