Learning a lot about a subject over the course of an assignment can leave me loving or hating it. A couple of years ago, I started a gig doing research for a documentary on the Beatles’ touring years. I had a passing knowledge of the group’s music and the various cultural spokes that radiated from it—Beatlemania, the films, the break-up—but possessed a benign ignorance of the details and never really understood it as a whole (as I suspect many people my age simply take for granted a number of Boomer-boosted icons of the 20th century). It turns out, I think the band is great. And the stories and anecdotes are often very good, sometimes great, ranging from the gothic to the ridiculous.

In any case, the fruits of that research (my part of which was just a fraction of the collective effort) can be found in the Ron Howard-directed doc The Beatles: Eight Days A Week—The Touring Years (and streamed on Hulu).

Witness, fellow pre-Millenial/post Gen-Xers, your antecedents’ enthusiasm!

environment, movies

Watch This Movie: Up the Yangtze

Although the flooding is near completion–the last city to be inundated is going under this fall–the consequences of China’s Three Gorges Dam will shudder through generations.

But that’s a big story, and big stories are hard to tell well. One way is to find a character, a family, a community, and to show how the big story reverberates on the smallest level. The Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang has found Yu Shui, her family, and a floating tourist ship offering Farewell Tours to the gorges, and through them he shows us some of those consequences in Up the Yangtze, his first feature-length documentary.

What we come away with is a multi-layered portrait of modern China, one whose brief moves beyond the dam and, in a series of subtle strokes, illuminates the conflict and paradox that define life for hundreds of millions. The strands are numerous and finely woven together: urban vs. rural, ambition, ownership, education, migration, resource allocation, and the uncomfortable relationship between Westerners and Chinese.

It’s worth noting that the dam has put people in uncomfortable situations since before it was built, such as when the People’s Congress passed a resolution in its favor in 1992. In that vote, fully a third of the congress either voted against or abstained from supporting the already controversial project, notable results from a body that is often dismissed as a rubber stamp.

I’ll grant that my perspective and enthusiasm is colored by my own limited experience in rural China, where many of the same themes I listed earlier are evident. But you can leave behind the political and social lens and enjoy the documentary for any number of other features, including the incredible cinematography, the intimate portrayal of family dynamics, and fleeting moments that are visually stunning and yet heartbreaking or frustrating.

I missed the film when it was in theaters this summer, but was lucky to catch it on PBS, where it screened as part of the POV series. You should now be able to watch it on DVD. In the meantime, here’s the trailer:

[Photo by Jonathan Chang]

Asia, China, competition, education, politics, really?

Please Vote For Me

The good folks at China Digital Times have pointed us to a documentary by Chen Weijun about an experiment in democracy in Chinese grade school. It’s an amazing piece. With all the electioneering and scheming, you eventually forget that you’re watching a bunch of eight-year-olds in a (nominally) Communist country.
Here’s the YouTube intro: 

In an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China, three eight-year-old students campaign for the coveted position of class monitor. This is the first election for a class leader to be held in China. The three candidates hold debates, campaign tirelessly and show their intellectual and artistic skills, until one is voted the winner. Their parents, devoted to their only child, take part and start to influence the results. 


The remaining chapters after the jump. Continue reading