Fallen City: Film Review

Straightforwardly sensitive study of post-trauma grief steadily expands into a sly microcosm of the changes afoot in 21st-century China.

Chinese writer-director-producer Qi Zhao's debut, selected for Sundance's International Documentary Competition, follows the aftermath of a shattering 2008 earthquake.

The reconstruction of an earthquake-leveled town takes on intriguing allegorical aspects in Qi Zhao's dutiful but deft documentary Fallen City. One of the more notable world premieres at Amsterdam's IDFA, whose own Bertha Fund contributed to its production, it's secured a North American bow as part of the International Documentary Competition at Sundance in January. This will doubtless lead to exposure at numerous non-fiction showcases through 2013, with small-screen sales a given.

Beijing-based writer-director Qi also acts as his own producer here, a role he filled on Lixin Fan's well-traveled 2009 documentary Last Train Home. That film showed how a specific phenomenon could with proper handling speak volumes about general problems facing contemporary, fast-changing China. Lixin in turn takes an executive producer credit here, alongside U.K.-born Michelle Ho and prominent Canadian documentarian Peter Wintonick.

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Already the focus of several documentaries and fictional treatments, the quake of May 12, 2008 was China's deadliest for more than three decades, killing nearly 70,000 people in Sichuan province in the country's mid-west. Among the communities devastated by the temblor was Beichuan, a town of 20,000 residents which was virtually wiped off the map in a matter of minutes.

Qi catches up with several of the survivors, following three stories over the course of four years: teenager Hong, who lost his father in the disaster; thirtysomething couple the Pengs, whose 11-year-old daughter was among the fatalities; and fortyish divorcee Mrs. Li who cares for her paralyzed mother in between rehousing her fellow townsfolk in her job as a community organizer.

The approach is suitably somber and respectful, each of the participants given time and space to verbalize their grief and explain how they go about picking up the pieces. This is absorbingly tough material, conventionally presented by means of talking-head testimony amid surveys of the wrecked landscape, with mournful musical accompaniment courtesy of the inevitable tinkling piano and sonorous strings.

But as Fallen City goes on, Qi does move toward establishing his own distinctive voice. From the very first shot - what looks like a leaf, but turns out to be a gentle mantis - he displays a Malick-esque fascination with flora and fauna, putting human suffering in the context of a natural world whose delicate fragility is more resilient than it might first appear. Cats and dogs play their part, but it's those mantises which really steal the show, photogenic little critters whose gracefully jointed limbs encourage anthropomorphic speculation.

These grace-notes punctuate a wider narrative development in which Qi and his three editors devote considerable time to how the famously controlling Chinese government uses the crisis of Beichuan as an opportunity to start afresh. The stoically fatalistic residents are housed in temporary accommodation some 40 miles from home while a gleaming new city takes shape, with striking alacrity, in their absence.

The boosterish tones of officialdom become a wry running feature: "The new Beichuan will be a safe, beautiful and culturally rich city," assures a spokesperson on state television. And once the modern, rigidly right-angled buildings and roads are constructed, the broadcasters crow: "We have made progress because we have a great party and a powerful country."

Unsurprisingly, Qi and company find the reality to be more complex and problematic: complaints are heard that the new apartments are too expensive to rent or buy, and that the new city has "no feeling." The supposed servants of the people emerge as less than entirely altruistic, notably in a third-act twist concerning one of the main protagonists which knocks the unsuspecting viewer off-balance.

Corruption, the discontents of youth, inter-generational strife, shortages of cash and the harsh effects of a tough labor-market all come under the microscope in a documentary which occasionally feels like it's trying to cover too many aspects of 21st-century China within the confines of a standard 90-minute running-time. As a quiet paean to human resourcefulness and resilience in the worst of circumstances, however, Fallen City takes its place among a rich current run of east Asian documentaries that find illumination amid heart-rending desolation.

Venue: IDFA - International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (First Appearance Competition), November 21, 2012.

Production company: YFM (YuanFang Media)
Director / Screenwriter / Producer: Qi Zhao
Executive producers: Lixin Fan, Michelle Ho, Peter Wintonick
Directors of photography: Shaogang Sun, Xiaoyu Niu
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Peicong Meng, Xiaoyo Niu

Sales agent: YFM, Beijing
No MPAA rating, 89 minutes