You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘The Chinese Mayor’

Documentarian Zhou Hao was granted remarkable access to the daily business of a high-ranking mainland Chinese official.

Geng Yanbo, Zheng Hui, Ma Suying, Song Yuhua, Li Fu, Zhang Xinpin, Feng Lixiang. (Mandarin dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4056808/

Granted remarkable access to the daily business of a high-ranking mainland Chinese official, Zhou Hao’s “The Chinese Mayor” offers a fascinating verite portrait of the collision between progress, politics, corruption and citizens’ rights in a rapidly changing People’s Republic. This rare peek behind the usual scrim of government image management is a natural for niche broadcasters and anyone else interested in quality current-events documentary features.

Fifty-four-year-old Geng Yanbo is the mayor of Datong, a metropolis of 3.4 million in Shanxi province that was long a coal-industry capital. But now that business is in decline, leaving as its major legacy the status of China’s most polluted city. Geng has made it his mission to transform Datong into a tourist-magnetizing cultural center, highlighting its important role throughout central dynasties of Imperial Chinese history.

But restoring and/or constructing the attractions key to that goal demands considerable sacrifice from residents, large numbers of whom are being forced to leave their longtime (yet illegal by hitherto unenforced law) family homes so entire neighborhoods can be razed. Worse, the “affordable housing” these mostly poor citizens are supposed to move into isn’t actually affordable to many; “low-rent” housing that they can afford has a wait list of three years. As they’re being rendered homeless, their material losses are compensated either insufficiently or not at all.

Thus, residents are raising vigorous objections, mounting public protests, even confronting riot police. (While Geng’s situation may be unique, it is noted that most Chinese mayors reside in military compounds for their own safety.) Understandably, they wonder just whose interests the government represents, when their own most basic needs are considered so insignificant.

Our first impression of Geng supports the substantial (if by no means universal) public antipathy toward him. He seems a sort of human bulldozer: tirelessly touring sites, taking calls while paying attending meetings and ceremonies, deferring to none. But the longer we witness him in action, the more admirable his efforts appear. Painful though the sacrifices required may be, he has a noble vision for this city that (if pulled off) will have long-term benefits for all.

Constantly besieged by individual citizens who are petitioning for justice (and who complain they’ve been beaten for defending their homes), Geng also deals incessantly with the corrupt bureaucracy and contractors under his purported command, who cut construction-cost corners at the citizens’ expense; many projects are inexplicably far behind schedule. Geng’s public humiliations of the guilty parties result in groveling apologies that one doubts will lead to any real systemic improvements. While we never see him at home, there is a sort of running gag in the form of frequent calls from the wife who berates Geng (“Are you tired of living?!?”) as she’s driven to exasperated tears by his insomniac, health-imperiling work pace.

What makes this frank picture of Chinese government at work even more surprising is the story’s conclusion, in which party higher-ups make an abrupt, baffling decision about Geng’s immediate future. It leaves all his work in limbo, the city in huge debt, and the citizens’ sacrifices possibly all for naught. Despite their prior protestations, the latter now grieve an inexplicable catastrophe that can only further erode trust in the nation’s leadership.

The film’s breathlessly on-the-run progress suggests Zhou had almost unlimited access — an intimacy underlined near the close when Geng asks just what the director has been filming, as he’d become so accustomed to the one-man crew he’d long since forgotten he was there. Compelling as both nonfiction narrative and character capture, the pic has a laserlike focus strengthened by the lack of soundtracked music or other packaging filigree.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Chinese Mayor'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 28, 2015. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — China) A Zhaoqi Films presentation. (International sales: Zhaoqi Prods., Berkeley, Calif.) Produced by Zhao Qi. Executive producers, Qi, Michelle Ho, Peter Wintonick. (Original title: "Datong")

Crew: Directed by Zhou Hao. Written by Zhou, Zhao Qi. Camera (color, HD), Zhou, Zhang Tianhui; editors, Yu Ziaochuan, Tom Lin; sound, Zhou; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Ziao Jing.

With: Geng Yanbo, Zheng Hui, Ma Suying, Song Yuhua, Li Fu, Zhang Xinpin, Feng Lixiang. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Writers Guild Expands Suit Against Agencies With New Fraud Allegations

    The Writers Guild of America has bulked up its lawsuit with additional fraud allegations against Hollywood’s four biggest talent agencies. The WGA amended its suit Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court with the claim that CAA, WME, UTA and ICM partners have engaged “constructive fraud” by allegedly placing their own interests ahead of their clients [...]

  • 'Heroes Don't Die' Review: A Peculiar,

    Cannes Film Review: 'Heroes Don't Die'

    Just when you think modern cinema has exploited the found-footage conceit from every conceivable angle, along comes a tragicomic mockumentary tracing Bosnia’s recent war-ravaged history via the travails of a young French film crew getting to the root of a reincarnated identity crisis. Aude Léa Rapin’s first narrative feature “Heroes Don’t Die” is nothing if [...]

  • Mediapro, Complutense, NFTS Team On Screenwriting

    The Mediapro Group Launches Master’s Program at Madrid’s Complutense University

    Madrid-based production hub The Mediapro Studio has announced finalized details of an arrangement with Madrid’s Complutense University (UCM) and the National Film and Television School of London (NFTS) on a new Master’s program designed to develop new screenwriting talent. Mediapro general director Juan Ruiz de Gauna, UCM dean of information sciences Jorge Clemente and Irene [...]

  • Argentina, A New Member of Co-Production

    Argentina Joins European Co-Production Fund Eurimages

    CANNES – Argentina will join the European Council’s co-production fund Eurimages as an associate member starting  on October 1 2019, it was officially announced Monday at the Cannes Film Market. The agreement was unveiled by Ralph Haiek, president of Argentine agency Incaa, Eurimages executive director Roberto Olla and the president of global producers assn. Fiapf, [...]

  • "Black Coal Thin Ice" in Berlin

    Chinese Director Diao Yinan Drills Down on 'The Wild Goose Lake'

    Diao Yinan is the only Chinese director with a film in the main competition this year at Cannes. He’s already a known entity on the arthouse circuit having won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2014 for his hardscrabble coal-blackened detective thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice.” Now he makes the leap to the Croisette with [...]

  • Blaise Harrison On Cannes Directors’ Fortnight

    Switzerland’s Blaise Harrison on Directors’ Fortnight Player ‘Particles’

    Swiss filmmaker Blaise Harrison is bringing his fiction feature debut to this year’s Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. Known for his documentary work, Harrison was selected for competition at the 2013 Locarno Festival for his film “Harmony,” about a marching band in the small French town of Pontarlier. “Particles” follows P.A., a teenager [...]

  • Constantin Film AG, Feilitzschstrase 6, Muenchen.

    Constantin’s Martin Moszkowicz on a New Market Realism (EXCLUSIVE)

    CANNES  —  2019’s Cannes  hit the floor running. Even after just two days of business, major sales companies were fielding offers from much of the world on top titles. After four days, quite a few were pretty confident they’d sell much of the world. Some of those deals are now being confirmed. Martin Moszkowicz, executive [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content