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Two documentaries give us a taste of the everyday struggles of men in a rapidly developing China. Both films successfully offer a view of these menís private lives, projected into public spheres.
The lifestyle of millions in China today is drastically different from that which they knew just a decade ago. Technology in the forms of mass media and transportation has infiltrated the lives of these citizens, though their days as peasants still come to light against the backdrop of development. This yearís UCLA Film/TV Archive mainland Chinese film series featured two documentaries that, in spite of their differences in plot, displayed the everyday lives of those caught in Chinaís awkward transition between the third world and the first.
DV China, created by Zhang Dasheng of the Chicago Art Institute, documents the struggles of Zhou Yuangiang as a rural peasant filmmaker. Zhouís resources -- both technical and financial -- are extremely limited. To American standards, his means of production give new meaning to the term ďlow-budgetĒ. However, this did not stop him from directing 18 TV series, ranging in genre from drama to comedy to martial arts. Zhouís work as an independent filmmaker serves both to help him realize his own dreams of directorial eminence and to give hope to the local peasant population. As media communications become increasingly important in the global community, Zhou carved a niche in the realm of entertainment with his dedication to his work, in spite of the low payoff. As an American spoiled by our larger-than-life mass media, it was both eye-opening and inspiring to watch as Zhou essentially defined the phrase, ďMaking something out of nothingĒ.
This Happy Life, directed by Jiang Yue, captures the raw emotions of two workers in the Zhengzhou (Hunan province) train station. The first, Fu Jiansheng, must learn how to let go of his maturing son, to whom he became very attached after the untimely death of his wife. Fuís close companion, Liu Yongli, feels almost emasculated because of his large debt, acquired from the purchase of a new apartment for his family. The menís lives are intertwined because of their employment at an overcrowded train station -- the footage of which was rather shocking because of the vast amount of people pushing and shoving to reach their destinations. Intimate discussions of the menís private woes provide a sharp contrast to the public hustle of the train junction. The documentary focuses on these two men, but the setting of the train station conveys a sense of losing oneself in the madness of transport. Ironically, transportation seems to isolate these people while physically bringing them closer together.
Both of the documentaries provide a revealing look into the lives of people experiencing first-hand the technological progress of modern day China. In a broader global perspective, these menís struggles almost contradict the outward appearance of China as an increasingly influential economic and political authority. DV China, in spite of all the inspiration it offers, brings attention to the ongoing poverty in rural China as a setback to its emergent mass media. This Happy Life shows two counter forces at work -- the breakdown of masculinity and the buildup of Chinaís transportation system.
In baring their hopes and fears to the camera, all these men offer us a personal glance at the inner workings of contemporary Chinese society. The stark differences between Chinese culture and our own are more than obvious; however, the personal anecdotes provide a sense of privacy and display universal emotions to which all Americans can relate. Looking past the surface appearances of China and the United States, these documentaries may offer a startling revelation -- maybe that we are more alike than we think.
Date Posted: 5/12/2005