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The PRC is staring at a significant and potentially disastrous demographics problem in the coming years thanks to its 35-year-old one-child policy. It is alleged that the program resulted in as many as 400 million unborn babies. China’s massive Three Gorges Dam project is the subject of ongoing criticism for its forced relocations of residents and negative impact on the environment. Writer-director Hao Tian marries those apparently unrelated topics in the 1997-set 500M800M, a Jia Zhangke-esque drama that ultimately connects the two subjects to heartbreaking and maddening effect. A humble film that makes the most of its mountainous Hubei province landscape, 500M800M should find a warm welcome on the festival circuit for its currency: China lifted its family restrictions at the beginning of the year.
The title refers to a distance above sea level, which acts as a guide for the state in moving people off what will be the dam’s reservoir. It’s also a sweet spot for having children: A second child is acceptable if the first is a girl for anyone living between 500 and 800 meters up. The film starts with one such resident, Hongfen (Chen Ling), giving thanks to Buddha for finally getting pregnant a second time. Her good fortune seems to continue when she’s informed the new homes “below the mountain” are ready for occupancy. She accepts the local bureaucrats’ cash incentives to sign up early, glad to be enrolling her eight-year-old daughter Yan (Shang Guan Yanxi) in school for the first time. But there’s a catch. Now that’s she and her husband officially live below 500 meters, mercenary bureaucrats icily inform her she’s become ineligible for a second baby. Hongfen is five months pregnant.
The rest of 500M800M follows Hongfen on her flight back up the mountain to avoid a forced abortion. Her plight also inspires the rest of the villagers to rethink the government’s offer and resist relocation — something Hongfen’s father-in-law, Sun (Wu Chengxiang), did from the start. Happy making clay statues in his traditional home, Sun becomes the symbol of the nearly 1.4 million people actually removed from their homes to make way for the dam. In sheltering Hongfen, he becomes the symbol of the families, past and possibly future, destroyed by policy. The ceaselessly argued-over dam is an easy target to hang the narrative on, but it’s an efficient catalyst for Hao’s critique of the destructive family planning policy.
Hao claims to be a Dogme 95 proponent, and he’s clearly been inspired by it. The spare, uncluttered aesthetic works here. The propaganda droning on and on in the background, blaring out of the town’s P.A. system, provides a better soundtrack than a string-heavy score ever could, and cinematographer Zhou Wenbin’s naturalistic images are nicely (if conventionally) contradictory: The images at 800 meters are lush and welcoming and brimming with culture; below the mountain they’re ashy, cold and anonymous.
Hao’s film is angry without being fiery, perhaps something he needed more of, but nonetheless the messages in 500M800M linger long after the final silent shots of a train of pregnant women trudging up the side of a mountain in an attempt to protect themselves and their babies fade away. That the film stops, rather than ends, is an ominous grace note that suggests their efforts are, sadly, going to fail.
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
Production company: Dogma International Film Company
Cast: Chen Ling, Wu Chengxiang, Li Wenyong, Shang Guan Yanxi, Peng Fang, Xiang Yuan Zho
Director: Hao Tian
Screenwriter: Hao Tian, Du Hong
Producer: Hao Tian
Director of photography: Zhou Wenbin
Editor: Xu Wenyi
Music: Liu Sijin
Not rated, 83 minutes
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