EmptyPusan International Film Festival
BUSAN, South Korea -- China's massive Three Gorges Dam project has been the subject of many films over the past few years, both in the abstract ("Manufactured Landscapes") and the concrete ("Still Life"). With more than 1 million people displaced when the dam is finally complete, unknown environmental damage and no real idea of the economic advantages, there's no question of the enormous effects the project will have. "Bingai," premiering at PIFF, follows the plight of one woman who refuses to be cowed by government forces and won't accept mandatory relocation quietly.
Given the subject matter, its unfettered observational tone and engaging central figure, "Bingai" is sure to be a hit on the documentary festival circuit. However, the low-key emotional punch and workmanlike style mean that any success beyond that will rely largely on specialty cable.
Director Feng Yan documents Bingai's seven-year struggle with her local and provincial councils, village elders and friends and family, many of who believe she's delusional, unreasonable, overly sentimental or all three. When everyone in her farming village opts to move the 120 kilometers downriver on the Yangtze, Bingai opts to fight to stay in her home. She doesn't want to uproot her family and her unhealthy husband, and her attachment to the land that she's lived on for years is fierce.
The film's epilogue states that Bingai lived in a shed for a year after finally losing her home once and for all following her years-long fight, settling for 4,800 yuan (about US$600) as compensation. The outcome of her battle is never in doubt, and it's her unrealistic belief that she can somehow remain after the waters of the rerouted river flood the entire area that is at the heart of the story.
Documentarian Feng dispenses with any examination of the issues surrounding the Three Gorges project -- the ecological impact, environmental aesthetics, economics and human rights -- to focus on one person and her community about to be obliterated in the name of progress. Feng essentially recontextualizes Three Gorges' intellectual place in China, moving it from the purely political realm to the more human one.
The talking heads and long takes of village debates occasionally bring the film to a near halt, hamper any sustained interest in Bingai's story and blunt an emotional connection. The result is a well-intentioned though oddly unaffecting factual account of an increasingly common occurrence in contemporary China.
A Feng Yan production in association with the Asian Network of Documentary Filmmakers, PUFS Fund, Pusan International Film Festival
Director: Feng Yan
Producer: Feng Yan
Directors of photography: Feng Yan, Feng Wenze
Editors: Feng Yan, Mathieu Haessler
Running time -- 117 minutes
No MPAA rating