A delightful surprise at the Tribeca Film Festival, partly because the film so little resembles its description, Stephen Maing’s “High Tech, Low Life” ostensibly examines censorship of the Internet and news media in China. But the pic is driven less by its subject matter than by its two very different and utterly fascinating bloggers: Twentysomething Zhou Shuguang is unabashedly careerist, seeing blogging as a means of self-promotion, while 57-year-old Zhang Shihe is genuinely dedicated to helping the poor find justice. Dynamic, highly entertaining docu could land a theatrical niche if sold on the strength of its freewheeling protags.
Helmer Maing intercuts chunks of both men’s travels and philosophies, stressing contrasts between the two.
In Hunan province, Zhou, aka Zola, makes no bones about his ambition to gain fame through the Internet, to the point of inserting smiling shots of himself into the most inappropriate (albeit otherwise unreported) news stories, boasting, “I’m a star. Everyone wants to see me.” He admits to not knowing what journalism is, yet displays an uncanny instinct for the newsworthy: His website spikes from 200 to 200,000 hits during his coverage of a rape/murder case involving an official’s son (of course, it helps that the government’s version of the schoolgirl’s death is patently preposterous). Zhou’s mother wants him to stick to his vegetable-hawking business, get married and support the family and the country, but he stubbornly sticks to his guns, touting the overriding claims of the individual and even exalting selfishness as “the first step in conquering the communist mindset.”
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Meanwhile, in Beijing, Zhang, aka Tiger Temple, sets out on his bicycle for yet another several-thousand-kilometer trip through the countryside, stopping to talk to farmers and villagers and address their woes. Zhang originally traveled with his camera and cat, Mongo, figuring (correctly) that authorities were unlikely to bother censoring the website of a talking cat (Maing includes early footage from Zhang’s website, featuring Mongo as a kitten clambering over rocks while discussing current events). Zhang took over in his own voice when the kitty got too big for his bicycle carrier.
Unlike Zhou, whose interest in his interviewees stays strictly professional, Zhang really connects with the people he meets along the way, and takes part in seeking solutions to their problems by connecting them with pro bono advocates and NGOs. When the Olympics create a new wave of homeless in Tiananmen Square, Zhou heads to Beijing to check things out, homing in on the more sensational stories of angry resistance. Meanwhile, Zhang raises money to fund new housing for the dispossessed.
Both bloggers run afoul of the government, as first the Olympics and then the Arab Spring make authorities leery of “citizen reporters” in the capital.
Maing’s imagery sometimes waxes poetic, as Zhang peddles through the fog against pastoral vistas; elsewhere, it serves as ironic counterpoint. When Zhou explains that readers only want to know six things about an incident — time, place, character, cause, development, conclusion — his words echo over a high-angled long shot of a handful of people talking in the street, with none of his six key elements discernible.