Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nathanael Hood travels down THE ROAD (2016) DOC NYC 2016

Admittedly, I’m an easy mark for documentaries about China. I got my undergrad degree in East Asian studies and most of my classes revolved around the Middle Kingdom, its history, and its culture. So the college student in me feels shocked and amazed by Zanbo Zhang’s The Road, the most bold-faced and audacious examination of systemic corruption in modern China that I have ever seen. Examining the construction of a modern highway through rural Hunan, it unflinchingly watches as hapless workers struggle to complete Sisyphean tasks with subpar materials and non-existent regulation. We watch as representatives of the Loudi Road and Bridge Co., a private construction company contracted by the Chinese government, barter, brow-beat, intimidate, and flat-out lie to locals who protest the project. The only thing more astonishing than the ubiquity of the corruption is its brazenness: more than once we see local officials and managers insouciantly flash Red Envelopes full of bribe money in front of the camera. Eventually the struggle between petty officials and the road company escalates to a point where the officials hire local gangsters to attack the hapless workers, hospitalizing them for months and permanently injuring many of them. Their migrant workers go months without being paid, employees get arrested by local police and held indefinitely without charges, and an exasperated safety inspector who demands the bridge be completely rebuilt is sated with alcohol. But here’s what truly amazed me: there are several sequences where the workers bicker about overthrowing the Communist Party of China (CPC). They lament its corruption and wonder if it can last until its 100th anniversary without being destroyed by revolution. That The Road was a Chinese/Danish co-production came as no surprise: I can’t imagine a Chinese director getting clearance to make this kind of film without international backing.

And yet, the film critic in me feels frustrated by The Road. Here we see a film fail its subject matter, deflating a riveting subject with sloppy organization and a decentralized narrative. The film is divided into four arbitrary sections: The Locals, The Laborers, The Fighters (aka the aforementioned gangsters), and The Singers (aka members of the CPC). But instead of providing structure, they keep the film from developing any kind of internal rhythm. What’s the point of making a big to-do about focusing on certain groups of people in each section if prominent persons keep reappearing in each of them? If the Laborers and their indignities are a constant presence throughout the whole film, why give them their own section? Why have a section in the first place?

I still feel that The Road is a crucial piece of documentary filmmaking. If anything, it provides a look into a China that the CPC would rather not be acknowledged, particularly as they reach their aforementioned 100th anniversary in 2021. There are strokes of genius, especially in the last fourth where soul-crushing statistics about work-place fatalities and bridge collapses are juxtaposed with CPC propaganda. But The Road still underwhelms. And for a subject this important, that shouldn’t be possible, let alone permissible.


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