By Dan Edwards
Southern Metropolis Daily has a proud reputation as one of the very few newspapers in mainland China with real teeth, so it’s perhaps not surprising the paper’s ranks have also produced such sharp-eyed documentarian as Zhou Hao. Zhou’s stories focus on minor, charismatic players in contemporary Chinese society, honing in on small stories to make broader points about various social milieux, from the world of heroin addition in Using (2008) to small town politics in The Transition Period (2009). More intriguingly, Zhou’s films also highlight the uncertain, often fraught relationship between documentary makers and their subjects.
Using opens among a group of emaciated junkies living under a highway overpass, a concrete island home in a sea of traffic. The casual presence of death is immediately apparent as we see Ah Long, a man in his 30s, chatting on the phone with a family member of an ailing addict. “He won’t last long,” Ah Long states bluntly. “I’m saying you should come to see him… You can come and have a last look…”
Drug addiction is not an issue that gets much coverage in the Chinese media, and it’s hard to know how widespread the problem is in China. Using delves into this murky world in the southern city of Guangzhou, tracing the friendship between Zhou Hao and a heroin addict named Ah Long over the course of several years.
After the opening sequence, we follow Ah Long and others back to a derelict structure beside a railway track. The uneasy, distrustful camaraderie among the drug users is immediately familiar to anyone who has encountered heroin addicts in reality, or seen their zoned out expressions on screen before. In fact, one of the striking aspects of Using is the way it shows heroin to be a cultural leveler, creating subcultures of users who always tell the same lies to themselves and those around them, to feed a habit they know will destroy them. The language of addiction, it seems, is the same in any culture.
In this sense, Using adds little to previous films about the culture surrounding heroin, apart from revealing its existence in present-day China. The film’s emotional nexus, however, lies elsewhere, in the knotty relationship between filmmaker Zhou Hao on the one hand, and Ah Long and his girlfriend Ah Jun on the other. The on-again off-again nature of their “friendship” is established straight after the film’s introductory sequence, when inter-titles tell us police cleared out the derelict building shortly after Zhou Hao filmed there. Ah Long disappears for six months and Zhou Hao gives up hope of ever seeing him again – until Ah Long calls out of the blue and they are reunited over a meal.
It’s a pattern repeated throughout the film, as Ah Long disappears time and again only to call Zhou Hao a few months later and tell the director he is “his one true friend” – before asking for money. After one prolonged disappearance the director finds Ah Long and his girlfriend Ah Jun living in a room shared with a puppy. Ah Jun asks the filmmaker for RMB 500, and he grudgingly hands over 200, saying firmly “This is all I have.” The couple laugh, as Ah Long comments, “I told her you’d only have 200 yuan… I said there’s no way you would bring 500 yuan here.”
It’s clear the filmmaker is being played for cash, but Zhou Hao is no fool – and neither is Ah Long. At one point Ah accuses the director of feeding his habit so that Zhou can coolly observe the results through his lens. But just as Zhou is repeatedly drawn back into Ah Long’s orbit by his fascination with the junky’s world, Ah Long clearly enjoys the attention and validity the camera lends his otherwise rather squalid existence. As this web of interdependence grows increasingly tangled, it becomes less and less clear who is “using” who.
Towards the end of the film Ah Long’s girlfriend, Ah Jun, tells the filmmaker that many of the most dramatic scenes we’ve witnessed – including Ah Long coughing up blood after he’s supposedly swallowed razor blades – were simply staged to extract money. “You never thought his acting was just a little too good?” she asks pointedly. And it’s true – Ah Long is quite a performer. And like all actors he seeks out an audience, just as director Zhou Hao wants to be on hand to capture his best moments.
It’s this blurring of truth and lies, calculated drama and a very real addiction, that makes Using such an emotionally discomforting experience. Like the filmmaker, we want to switch off but we just can’t look away.
Inevitably Ah Long’s addiction leads him to a grim dead end, and takes him places Zhou Hao’s camera can’t follow. After narrating the final stages of the addict’s downward spiral, Zhou Hao leaves us with a final flashback that perfectly captures the uncertain boundaries that have framed his friendship with Ah Long throughout the film. As the addict edges along a dangerously high wall beside a railway track, he looks down at Zhou filming from the safety of ground level. “I could jump down,” he says jokingly. “You’d get your perfect shot.”
With a final wave, Ah Long climbs down onto a side road and leaves Zhou Hao filming from the far side of the wall. As he disappears into the distance we’re left to ponder – have we been observers of his fate, or accomplices to his decline?
The Transition Period
A quite different, though also quietly reflexive film, The Transition Period follows a county-level party secretary during his last months in office. From the opening scenes we get a sense of the way personal relations stand in for institutional procedures and structures in China, as the party secretary personally meets with peasants whose homes have been forcibly demolished, dolling out ad hoc compensation in response to their complaints. Later we see local business luminaries visiting the secretary’s office and coyly ask for favours while inviting him to dinner.
The secretary’s domain is in Henan, a land-locked province in central China where the economy lags far behind the coastal regions. Although the area has a county chief, as at all levels of government in China, it’s the party secretary who holds real power.
As well as the cronyism that infects China’s corridors of power, The Transition Period lays bare the repressive dynamics of the nation’s top-down power structures, as the central character informs a meeting of township-level party secretaries that if anything “happens” on their patch, they will take the blame.
It’s this vague yet pervasive emphasis on “stability,” combined with a weak system of law, that leads to some of the worst abuses by authorities in China. Low-level cadres tend to follow a deeply-instilled instinct to suppress any sign of social disturbance, lest it reflect badly on their superiors and undermine their own career prospects. The lack of legal means by which citizens can resolve conflicts means ordinary people and the authorities are in a constant dance of negotiation, appeasement and repression, that puts as much strain on cadres as it does ordinary citizens.
One protracted sequence illustrates how these dynamics play out on the ground, as the party secretary’s car is surrounded by an angry mob of builders who have not been paid by a private contractor working on a government job. Despite the crowd’s fury, the secretary skillfully defuses the situation by agreeing to see a small delegation of workers at the local government office.
The representatives are brought to a meeting room where they are greatly outnumbered by officials and silenced by the intimidation of their surrounds. The secretary berates them for causing a disturbance and promises severe repercussions if they instigate another protest. At the same time he promises to obtain their wages, which he does later in the film by threatening the contractor.
Although the episode reveals the unrelenting pressure placed on officials by China’s haphazard system of administration, it also underscores why China’s political system is so resistant to reform. Any meaningful strengthening of institutional procedures would require a separation of powers, threatening the very basis of the immense arbitrary power wielded by local cadres.
In a disturbing indication of the extent to which this power is taken for granted, the party secretary quite deliberately flaunts his influence and privileges for Zhou’s camera. We see him planning his own succession in cahoots with other officials, openly making a mockery of Beijing’s talk of “intra-Party democracy.” Only when the discussion moves on to the exchange of large sums of money does he casually ask Zhou to turn off his camera.
Although such scenes indicate serious corruption is rampant, other abuses of power seen in the film are simply puerile. Like most officials in China, a considerable slice of the party secretary’s working life seemingly comprises publicly-funded banquets fueled by copious amounts of alcohol. On one occasion he celebrates the birthday of a local Western businessman by becoming utterly inebriated and happily smearing the businessman’s face, as well as his own, with cake.
Another stiff meeting with a visiting Taiwanese business delegation is followed by an inevitable drinking session, in which one of the Taiwanese drunkenly slurs down the camera, “Business and government want the same thing. First: POWER! Second: MONEY! They sound almost the same in Chinese – the two are indivisible!” The speech neatly sums up the twin drivers of China’s particularly avaricious system of state-controlled capitalism.
Complicity with the Camera
The most disquieting aspect of Zhou’s cinema is not so much what he shows us – though this is often disturbing enough – but his subject’s willingness to act as they do for his camera. Far from being a fly-on-the-wall observer, Zhou deploys his lens as a kind of proxy audience, encouraging his subjects to play heightened versions of themselves for the screen. The characteristics his subjects chose to reveal speak reams about the particular social worlds they inhabit, from the petty abuses of power infusing the political realm of The Transition Period, to the insecurities and escapist desires underlying addiction in Using.
Even as the camera’s gaze lays bear the contours of these characters’ worlds, it calls into question our own complicity as consumers of their on-screen behavior. For all their willingness to perform for the camera, these are not actors – they are real people, whose actions have real consequences for the world around them. We may find their actions amusing, titillating or even abhorrent, but their eagerness to act as they do never lets us forget that we tolerate a world that makes these scenes possible.
Dan Edwards is a critic and journalist who contributes regularly to RealTime and The Beijinger. In 2011 he will be commencing a PhD project on the Chinese independent documentary movement.