“Super, Girls!,” Jian Yi’s humdinger of a docu, follows a handful of young women auditioning for the 2006 edition of the vastly popular, soon-to-be-banned Super Girl contest, the Chinese equivalent of “American Idol.” Offering a slew of artless sociopolitical insights about the new generation of post-capitalist youth (out of the mouths of babes), the pic proves as entertaining as it is revelatory, thanks to the girls’ openness and extraordinary exuberance. Indeed their energy shanghais the film, creating a casual, unforced intimacy quite distinct from the ponderous head-shaking of many recent China pulse-takers. Smallscreen exposure looms for the pic, already available on DVD and on demand.
The Super Girl singing contest exploded as an overnight cultural phenomenon, quickly becoming the most-watched telecast in the country’s history. The 2005 winner, Li Yuchun, garnered 3.5 million cell-phone votes, and all the top contenders morphed into instant superstars — adored by merchandisers, the media and hordes of zealous fans, their photos emblazoned on billboards and TV screens caught by Jian’s clandestine camera.
Initially, Jian captures Super Girl wannabes lounging around in college dorms, shared apartments or hotel rooms as they freely babble on about their jobs and expectations, then tracks them to regional tryouts in Changsha. Once there, Jian encounters perky Wang Yunan, who’s already passed the first round of auditions and immediately appoints herself the pic’s de facto guide, her outrageous candor and genuine warmth making her irresistible both to her co-competitors and to Jian.
The helmer happily trails along in Wang’s ebullient wake as she gleefully addresses the camera with her appreciation of a “boyish” girl’s wry personality (the general consensus finds the androgynous look “in”) and breezily opines on everything from Bill Gates’ lack of a college degree to former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s historical refusal of Japanese reparations.
Other girls constellate around Wang: Liu, a career singer for whom contests are a professional necessity, and a lesbian named Momo from a super-rich family who doesn’t take rejection well. Others pass by, including a popular hip-hop duo, in baseball caps and too-large sneakers, urged by local TV newfolk (the place is swarming with them) to rap for the cameras.
Docu’s most poignant portrait is that of a country girl dressed in a ragged Mao-era uniform with matching green canteen. What in her village must have read as a quaint costume, a recognizable remnant from the past, here marks her as irredeemably “other.” In this rich, urban, Westernized culture, she reps the intrusion of an alternate China supposedly long buried, but lurking just beyond the frameline.