Zhang Yuan takes a fly-on-the-wall look at the pulsating heart of the Chinese capital in “The Square.” Though it’s decidedly short on the stylistic flourishes one might expect from the director of “Mama” and “Beijing Bastards,” this documentary curio overcomes its rambling form and frequent repetitiveness simply by virtue of its fascinating subject. Docu fests will certainly provide a home, and enlistment of a more economical editing hand might help carve out an engrossing public TV vehicle.
One of the film’s most interesting aspects is that it was made at all. Zhang was one of seven Chinese helmers subjected to a blanket ban on all filmmaking early in 1994. Not only did he manage to carry on working, but he did so right under the authorities’ noses in perhaps the most public location in the country. The feat was achieved with a crew small enough to blend in with the crowds, and equipment hired from a privately run studio with an ask-no-questions policy.
Somewhat surprisingly, the director refrains from any explicit reference to the Tiananmen Square riots of June 1989, but he nonetheless conveys a strong sense of the vast landmark’s monumental role in China’s culture, history and politics. Also implicit is the sheer volume of people who pass through the massive space every day.
Docu carries no narration, seemingly casting random glances at the wide range of activity going on in various parts of the square. Zhang eavesdrops on state TV journalists as they interview police officers stationed there, who speak of their role in guarding the nationally significant location with fierce pride. Small children quizzed during a flag-raising ceremony appear to have had the same intense feeling of cultural pride instilled in them, along with a smattering of basic political awareness.
Much of the film focuses on idle pursuits. Swarms of visitors pose for photographs in front of Mao’s giant portrait and the Great Hall. Awe-struck streams of Chinese from the far-flung provinces file through, along with steady numbers of foreign tourists. Leisure activity ranges from kite-flying to skateboarding to frisbee throwing to tai chi classes.
Perhaps the most telling sign of people’s association of the square with scenes of conflict from the recent past is the series of anxiously solemn faces shown during a gun salute for a visiting foreign dignitary.
Technically, the operation is a no-frills one, serviceably shot in black-and-white.