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A Yangtze Landscape (2017)

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

Despite China's government having tight control over the means of film production, there's been a number of low-budget documentarians seeking to acknowledge the dark modern realities of the internally & externally unstable world power. This movement extends into the 20th century, but it's perhaps most known for the arrival of the likes of 2000s artists such as Wang Bing, whose interminably extended observations of grueling day-to-day life for the destitute and displaced in post-Mao China capture the essence of a purgatorial present. Fellow newcomer Xu Jin specializes in the all-too-temporary ruptures in soul-draining stasis. More specifically, Jin ponders how outrage at seemingly-intolerable injustice is suppressed by the powers that be. Of course, there's plenty of overlap in the interests and skillsets of the two documentarians, but the relatively unknown Xu Jin especially evokes the sense of a violent history being oppressed by the unaccountable class solidification that inevitably arises in Marxism's chaotic wake.

Jin's most well-known film, Karamay, uncovered a mass tragedy in which hundreds of children performing tributes to public officials burned to death in a fire during which the lower-class citizens were commanded to remain in place as the ruling class made their exit. The event was the sort of travesty that would result in the righteous rolling of heads in a world predicated on justice instead of the maintenance of a status quo, but grieving parents were censored and the ruler-run mass media swept potential outrage under the rug, nothing to see here. Contrasting with colored footage from oft-deceptive news outlets, Jin shoots his interviews with oppressed testifiers in a black-and-white palette that suggests the inability to gather all possible information in addition to asserting a clear-cut moral reality. Taking a similar approach to color palette, A Yangtze Landscape expands upon Jin's visual theories of documentation to result in his most thematically ambitious work yet, another essential attempt to diagnose the evasion of acknowledgment on a national scale.

Chairman Mao once described the Yangtze as a "mother river" for being a vital geographical means for uniting China's commerce and culture; Xu Jin demonstrates how dire the parenting of the people has been. After introducing the film's distanced quietude with footage of boats cutting through the fog on the endless open water, we see giant digital signs adorning waterside skyscrapers in Shanghai's Pudong district: "You can and will obey the law. Violators will be prosecuted." The gulf of contrast between the inviting (if you can call it that) gaudy lights coating glassy emulative architecture and the truth beneath the surface is further widened by a movie subtitle informing us of what happened near this spot from March 10th-20th, 2013: "Diseased pig corpses repeatedly hauled off of Shanghai's Huangpu River, 10395 in total."

From here, this Benning-esque journey from the sea to the source of the stream showcases a slew of stark sights of laborers slaving away, shambling vagabonds searching for sustenance, peasant places left to rot, and upper-crust condos that might as well be from a different universe to the little people. A Yangtze Landscape has no interviews or narration; it simply shows real places and alludes to real events in the past. An infrastructure crisis happened here, a few people went "missing" from a capsized boat or exploding equipment there. Entire villages were flooded by dams or otherwise wiped off the map to make way for bougie playgrounds. The images are given just enough time for the audience to make their own observations before being contextualized by historical information, that tragedy has happened and then lost to time.

Yet there is a foregrounded element of artifice; we begin to find suspect the occasional scene of a woman screaming on the beach or a vagabond who seems a bit too clean-shaven. A seemingly mentally retarded woodworker (in a town that used to thrive in the industry) cuts his finger, at which point a member of the camera crew walks into the frame to bandage him. Focus on a fisherman who is yet to be compensated for a work accident mangling his hands is interrupted by a girl interrupting the image of his outward gaze to insist that her basket of puppies be included in the film. In the last 20 minutes, there is a clearly staged, stylized sequence in which a downbeat portly fellow walks along a certain path and ends by looking towards the camera. Indeed, one LetterBoxd reviewer attests that a Q&A with Xu Jin confirms the use of actors in some scenarios that stick out a bit from the rest of the movie, leaving the viewer to second-guess some scenarios.

Perhaps the intent is not just simply poetic, but also an invitation to scrutinize the images as aestheticized artifacts. Jin's digital camera uses an equal amount of focus on what it captures, never zooming or moving independently, and while many shots have an unambiguous message -- a site of homeless and their dogs under a bridge boasts a scenic view of a high-luxury city across the river -- many are more subtle, such as empty jewelry boxes or a workshop building Buddhas, suggesting a mass of manufactured images in addition to the manufactured garbage flooding waterways & walkways. The viewer is primed to seek out detail & context when it arises since much of the film surrounding these curious occasions is totally tonal & abstracted as if Peter Hutton had pollution-choked nightmares.

While it seldom outright fictionalizes its images, the film has no illusions of being a comprehensive, unfiltered account of its subjects, setting its sights on more fundamental themes of representation. Interrogation of the image extends to digital itself when the film displays blurry television screens spewing obvious propaganda: "'Tibet's entire diverse population joyfully celebrating Tibetian new year'" is one way to spin institution-enforced demographic displacement and tradition-eroding immigration invasion. Jin goes for the jugular by following up with images of globalization (railroads etc) and statistics of Tibetian death and marginalization; they get to keep just enough of their culture for tourists to ooh and ahh at. This communist colonialism makes for a fitting final stop for the journey up the Yangtze River.

But what precedes the Tibetian connection that the news footage initiates is equally important: crowds of Chinese participating in a dance dedicated to their glorious leaders. They're not having the time of their lives per se, but one perceives some small comfort being felt in doing the same thing alongside others. What A Yangtze Landscape seems to imply with a focus on group activities ranging from holiday celebrations and religious ceremonies to community tributes and shared labor is that humans long to have some greater uniting force, grasping any activity one can do in a society that annihilates any acts of dissent.

When there aren't enough people willing & able to take a stand against their oppressors, fear of punishment makes any unifier, even a shared delusion, seem preferable to risk. Genuine history & identitarianism are eroded & replaced by what the ruling class tells you is real, what the ruling class tells you you're defined by. You may not have the power to effect change -- some would like you to believe you can't, at least -- but the screens blasting propaganda in the public square are as there as your connecting Mother River for you to have some tenuous ties with your fellow sufferers.


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Freeman shows you the hidden methods & meanings of media in its varying forms.

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