Unveil the Truth II – State Apparatus (Bu Neng Chuo De Mi Mi – Kuo Chia Chi Chi): Film Review
The second of Kevin H.J. Lee’s investigative documentaries on Taiwan’s avian-flu outbreak chronicles the director’s dogged pursuit in exposing an official cover-up.
Taiwan has always boasted of the most vibrant and uninhibited documentary-making scene in the various Chinese-speaking territories of East Asia. That position is given another boost by Kevin H.J. Lee’s latest documentary, tackling – nearly literally – official wrongdoing in the island’s long-running containment of avian flu outbreaks.
Beyond the sometimes hard-to-digest technicalities and the slightly limited visual template -- such as the television-style rolling-tape-recorder graphic which accompanies telephone conversations -- the TV-journalist-turned-filmmaker’s dogged pursuit and unflinching confrontations with evasive bureaucrats produces not only hilarious drama, but also a revealing picture of the downside of modern-day political machinations.
As its full title suggests, Unveil the Truth II – State Apparatus, is Lee’s follow-up on a previous outing (Unveil the Truth – Government Virus, a Chinese-subtitled version of which is still available on YouTube). That film saw the director spending six years in collecting information and statistics -- including some gleaned from dissections and tests he took part in -- so as to reveal the presence of high-pathological strains of avian flu in Taiwan. While the tracking of the outbreak is still very much central to the proceedings this time round, State Machine has its sights set on asking why officials were hell-bent in dialing down the threat. The results will certainly resonate with audiences at international independent documentary festivals -- even those uninitiated with the epidemic itself.
Admittedly, these viewers might find the first third of the film a bit challenging, as the narrative takes up where the first film left off and Lee lodges complaints about what he sees as local agricultural officials’ bungled attempts in identifying and containing the spiraling epidemic. But the message becomes clearer and more easily comprehensible as Lee proceeds with his investigation -- sending dead chickens to officials, with requests that they be tested for infection, and secretly taping what he sees as the health inspectorate’s less-than-stringent approach to engaging an infected farm. In the process, he finds himself stonewalled by nearly everyone in the administration. Having attained some notoriety in the national-hygiene circuit, Lee gets variously brushed off by officials, while a press spokesman actually begs him for mercy. (Later in the film, a press briefing is actually called off at the last minute after media attaches learn of Lee’s presence in the room.)
What emerges from the farce is a closing of the official ranks, as Lee finally arrives at what he deems as the politically-fuelled raison d’etre of the whole cover-up: that an academic advisory body might have been “advised” to postpone signing off on reports stating the existence of high-pathological avian flu virus until the incumbent agricultural chief leaves office. And all this only after Lee gets to feel the brunt of the “state apparatus,” with internal memos revealing official plans to discredit Lee’s claims. Indeed, at the same time that officials were finally censured last August, an official report also made suggestions about how to restrict civilian interference in public-health investigations.
Financed by Lee himself, Unveil the Truth – State Apparatus offers very basic production values. That the documentary remains riveting throughout speaks volumes about Lee’s ability to clearly map his discourse through simple sequences, and how he and his fellow editor Li Tsing-wei concisely and precisely lace it all together. A solidarity of sorts among Lee and his peers also helps – a few of Lee’s fellow journalists are also featured in the piece and their talking-head interviews provide another perspective about how the government and the media operate in Taiwan today. Such advocacy strengthens State Apparatus’ aesthetic and moral pedigree, which arguably propels Lee to worthy comparisons with foreign counterparts, such as Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield.
Such allusions reflect Lee’s divisive approach in tackling his subject -- an interventional path, which might draw scorn from purists who frown on documentary-makers allowing their presence to be felt – but it's also easy to view Unveil the Truth as a very black comedy -- one with real people suffering from the on-screen mishaps committed by the forever bumbling and scheming politicians.
Venue: Chinese Documentary Festival, Hong Kong
Production Unit: Kevin H.J. Lee
Director: Kevin H.J. Lee
Producer: Liu Wei
Cinematographers: Chang Wei-tung, Yang Chi-tai, Jao Chen-ming, Kevin H.J. Lee
Editors: Kevin H.J. Lee, Li Tsing-wei
International Distribution: TOSEE Publisher