Once Upon A Time Proletarian

Once Upon A Time Proletarian


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

For most of us in the West, whether or not we travel to China, our experience of this rapidly changing country comes largely from cinema, in particular some of the high quality documentaries of recent years. So I had fairly high expectations of this film, made by Xiaolu Guo while filming her drama She, A Chinese. I say fairly high because anything which promises to relay its story in 12 chapters sounds a warning note.

It starts with some panache. In a black and white sequence, children in a Beijing backstreet crowd round the camera, eager to talk about themselves and to read out short pieces from a storybook. Their energy and obvious enjoyment draw us in.

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In the next scene, an old peasant works in his field of maize, surrounded by the pylons which have brought him electricity. He takes us into his squalid home, proudly showing off his fridge and his single lightbulb. Then he launches into a foul-mouthed tirade, beginning with “This country is shit” and encompassing the high crime rate, corruption, the worship of money, the idiots in the government and how everything was better in the time of Mao. He’s a real entertainer.

After this we are introduced to various workers in Beijing, a woman who runs a restaurant at the bus station, a young man from the countryside who now washes cars, a fish seller, a hotel worker and many more. Well, twelve altogether, though it feels like more. Each little vignette is linked by another black and white sequence with the children, who soon become less engaging.

The overall, very sad message of the film is that here is a nation of people freed from the gruelling work patterns of the past, but who now find themselves trapped in dull, monotonous and soul-destroying jobs. Most of them can afford to smoke, use mobiles and wear decent clothes but, as one of them says, “I want my heart to be able to breathe.” Asked about their dreams, they long for travel, variety, anything but the endless round of work and sleep.

One or two characters provide some comic relief. The “park manager” who patrols in central Beijing seems intent on crushing any sign of pleasure, as he goes around shouting “No smoking! No photos on the grass! Don’t walk on the grass!”

Occasionally a patriotic song on the soundtrack brings great amusement, like Learn From Lei Feng, who could have been a lumberjack.

But director Guo obviously wants us to feel the pain. She achieves this not only through the repetitious pattern of the stories, but by a gradual slowing of the pace, holding shots for longer, panning across empty areas of wasteland. By the time she came to the security men watching CCTV I was losing the will to live.

Should we complain? We came to learn more about China and we didn’t like what we saw. Do we have a right to feel disappointed when other people’s lives are not pretty? This won’t be many people’s idea of a fun night out, but at least we have the freedom to leave the cinema. Perhaps Guo has made her point well.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2009
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An exploration of the social and political landscape of modern China.
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Director: Xialou Guo, Pamela Casey

Year: 2009

Runtime: 76 minutes

Country: China, UK, Germany


Doc/Fest 2009

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