Weijun Chen’s thought-provoking and achingly hilarious docu, featuring Chinese 8-year-olds involved in an experiment in democracy, follows three candidates as they run for the hitherto teacher-appointed position of class monitor. Within hours, kids’ spontaneous reactions to the new situation give way to campaign strategies, psychological manipulations and dirty tricks, greatly enabled by their parents’ spin-doctoring. Adorable and horrifying in equal measure, pic garnered the top prize at SilverDocs before airing globally as part of the “Why Democracy?” project. At a time when the exportation of democracy serves as a rationale for war, “Please Vote for Me” attains must-see status.
Pic presents a fascinating mix of the exotic and the familiar as democracy springs, full-blown, out of a void and into the mouths of babes. Shots of students lined up outdoors, doing calisthenics or singing patriotic songs conjure up old images of Red China. Yet inside the modern, well-appointed schoolrooms, children lob wadded-up balls of paper and chatter away like kids anywhere. Indeed, it is the job of the class monitor to maintain order.
The three candidates chosen by the teacher include Xiaofei, a smart but shy little girl; chubby, self-confident Cheng Cheng, who aspires to become president of China; and Luo Lei, a quiet strong-arm incumbent.
Each is allowed two helpers, and each engages in a display of talent, a debate and a speech. While Xiaofei works diligently on her presentation, honing her ideas, Cheng Cheng sends out frontmen to heckle her and yell, “She’s terrible!” during her talent performance, causing her to burst into tears, a weakness he will later exploit in debates. Meanwhile, Luo Lei, son of the police chief, treats the entire class to a monorail excursion.
As only children of families that belong to China’s growing urban middle class, the kids are coached by their parents with dead seriousness, as if everything rides on their success. At-home scenes with the pint-size politicos highlight different parental approaches to social advancement.
But as the election progresses, the kids’ own instincts increasingly kick in, particularly in the cases of Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei (Xiaofei’s sincerity and sensitivity proving obvious handicaps on the cutthroat campaign trail).
Cheng Cheng, a born statesman, is both the most gladhanding and Machiavellian of the bunch. He pretends to befriend Xiaofei while backstabbing her, then blames the sabotage on Luo Lei, thus killing two birds with one stone.
Luo Lei, not the brightest of bulbs, coasts on his policing heritage and his two-term appointed reign (similarities to America’s political landscape are sometimes downright eerie), having perfected a system of carefully meted-out violence that effectively keeps the students in line.
Tech credits are polished. Weijun Chen spent six months with the kids and their families before shooting, and it shows in the amazingly unfiltered candor of the children, who seem oblivious to the camera, their image-making reserved for their classmates.