'The Chinese Mayor' ('Datong'): Sundance Review

The Chinese Mayor
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Beware the Red Dragon

Chinese documentary filmmaker Zhou Hao follows the mayor of a Chinese city who decides to relocate half a million people to make room for an immense cultural project

The transformation of an extremely polluted industrial city into a newly erected (!) cultural heritage site is not without some major hiccups in The Chinese Mayor (Datong), from documentary director Zhou Hao (Emergency Room China, Using). The rather low-tech but otherwise impressively assembled film follows controversial city administrator Geng Yanbo, who has to relocate half a million people to make room for construction work that would restore some of the ancient splendor to the city of Datong, which was the capital of China during the Northern Wei dynasty, some 16 centuries ago.

At once a fascinating and shocking cautionary tale about the way gargantuan construction projects are allowed to mushroom or come to a halt according to the cryptic whims of those in power, this winner of a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for “unparalleled access” at Sundance should see interest from other festivals, cinematheques and broadcasters.

There is indeed something strangely mesmerizing about the access the director managed to have while filming, following not only the many residents about to be relocated or displaced -- many of them defiantly crowing they won’t budge but all of their houses mercilessly bulldozed some days or weeks later -- but also the titular protagonist himself, who, as per the press materials, is nicknamed “Demolition Geng” or “Geng Smash-Smash.” The mayor’s idea is relatively straightforward if also very ambitious: He wants to turn Datong, a city of several million inhabitants in Shanxi Province, in the northern part of Central China, from the most polluted city in the country, thanks to its past as an important coal mining center, to a hub that could sustain itself thanks to cultural tourism. As a former capital, Datong has a glorious past though not many of the ancient buildings have survived, so Geng’s solution is to simply build new, old-style buildings and a city wall that would recreate something of the city's antique splendors.

In order to do this, the 54-year-old official needs to relocate thousands and thousands of people, which is obviously a task that’s easier said than done. As the camera -- footage is often shaky, low-grade material -- follows Geng around, he’s seen inspecting the advancing construction sites, chairing bureaucratic meetings and planning sessions and constantly being petitioned the moment he sets outside by people who have lost or are about to lose their homes (since many of them were not officially registered dwellings, their inhabitants do not qualify for an apartment in the new highrises Geng has built for those that need to move).

There are of course hair-raising questions of historical authenticity -- “As long as it’s from before our time, we should use it,” is the shiver-inducing conclusion after Geng has visited an eager seller of seemingly antique stone ornaments and decorations -- but the film’s really more interested in the interaction between state and local government on the one hand and the people on the other and both get their say in fluidly alternated scenes shot over a long period of time (there’s no voice-over narration, though some explanatory texts are occasionally added onscreen).

"The Qin Emperor who built the Great Wall of China is considered a tyrant," hurls one of the malcontent locals, and it’s clear he doesn’t mean the comparison as a compliment, though others see the mayor as someone who can save Datong from a very bleak future, as a massive protest in his favor attests. The longer view and radical course Geng dares to take as an elected (by the party) state official is certainly admirable, and perhaps allowing a documentary crew to document what he’s doing is part of the mayor’s plan to suggest something about the power and resoluteness of some of the leaders of contemporary China.

But even as he marshals an impressive amount of resources and manages to get things done while managing to pay attention to such details as the necessary pipe width of the old city’s new sewers, the mayor’s solution to the problem of Datong’s future economical development and sustainability is highly questionable, especially at the price it seems to come for not only the thousands of locals but even for Geng himself, whose wife is seen bitterly complaining about his absence the few times she’s actually onscreen.

There’s a scene that documents, again with remarkable access, Geng’s official reelection, which is clearly a farce since he’s the only candidate put forward by the party, which unanimously votes for his reelection. But the scene becomes even more chilling in hindsight, when suddenly and without explanation, the megalomanic or potential savior is transferred to another municipality and the entire, half-completed project comes to a grinding halt and a post-script explains that Geng’s simply decided to take his visionary project for Datong to the next city while his hometown of five years is left in crippling debt, with a Herculean construction project that’s not even half finished and thousands of people displaced.  

Production company:  Zhao Qi Films

Director: Zhou Hao

Screenplay: Zhou Hao, Zhao Qi

Producer: Zhao Qi

Directors of photography: Zhou Hao, Zhang Tianhui

Editors: Yu Xiaochuan, Tom Lin


No rating, 86 minutes