Chinese Director Jia Zhangke Tackles Smog in Greenpeace Short

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The short film 'Smog Journeys' takes an offbeat look at China's air pollution woes.

Chinese director Jia Zhangke has made a short film called Smog Journeys for environmental group Greenpeace East Asia about the damaging health effects of air pollution on families.

Jia is well known as a socially conscious filmmaker and has tackled other major issues in his movies, including the Three Gorges Dam project (Still Life) and the documentary Useless, about the garment manufacturing business.

"The original idea sounded a bit like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, hypothetically putting people into different age groups, demonizing the smog into some sort of monster and then beating the monster with all kinds of kung fu styles. I thought the idea was clever and pretty interesting," said Jia.

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New data from Greenpeace East Asia shows that over 90 percent of 190 cities to report data in 2014 were exceeding China’s own limit on the annual average level for fine particulates that pose the greatest risk to human health in the air, the so-called PM2.5, short for "Particulate Matter up to 2.5 micrometers in size."

"I wanted to make a film that enlightens people, not frightens them. The issue of smog is something that all the citizens of the country need to face, understand and solve in the upcoming few years," said Jia, whose Still Life won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2006. His movie A Touch of Sin won the best screenplay honor at Cannes in 2013, but failed to get a Chinese release.

"Through what seems somewhat like a paradox, I hoped to promote people’s awareness of self-protection, and protection of the environment, and make more people start to realize on their own what is going on around them. Besides that, I also sensed something poetic in this — that the power of life remains in people even in horrible environments," Jia said.

A big problem for China's skies is that the country is heavily reliant on coal as an energy source. It already consumes about half of the world’s supply and must meet power needs that will double by 2030, according to estimates from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

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Air pollution is blamed for the deaths of nearly half a million Chinese a year, and Jia's father died from lung cancer in the coal-rich province of Shanxi. He said he was aware of smog back in the 1990s, but it really became an issue for him when he moved to the capital, Beijing.

The short film traces the lives of two families in Hebei Province and Beijing — one a mining family and the other a fashion designer in the capital. Coal consumption in the Hebei province, which borders Beijing, reached 313 million tons in 2012 and is a major contributor to smog. Of the 10 cities with the worst air pollution, seven of them are in Hebei, according to experts.

According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, cities in the Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region suffer over 100 haze days every year, with PM2.5 concentration two to four times above the World Health Organization guidelines.

"Clean air is a basic necessity for healthy living. It’s sad if children grow up with more smog than clean air and blue skies, as depicted in Jia’s film," said Yan Li, head of climate and energy at Greenpeace East Asia. "Bringing back clean air needs to be a priority and it requires urgent action. Greenpeace calls on the government to take immediate steps to safeguard the health of its citizens, cut coal and shift towards cleaner renewable energy."

China’s top leaders issued a “war against pollution” and a national plan to improve air quality in the country in late 2013.