As part of International House's "Symbols of China" series, filmmaker Xiaolu Guo arrives to present this documentary essay on the changing face of contemporary Beijing. "This is our new civil war," she narrates over images of apartment complexes rising where courtyards once stood. China, she says, has gone from "the Cultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution." Guo focuses on the social transformations wrought and reflected in China's new urban landscape, where the surroundings of Tiananmen Square are painted green to compensate for the lack of trees (considered by Mao a waste of soil better used for crops), but also takes account of the human cost: the construction workers who travel hundreds of miles from their home villages, who need three permits simply to stay in Beijing, and who go for months without their promised government paychecks. "You are a piece of nothing without money in this society," says one who cannot hold back tears at the thought of his separation from his wife and daughter.

Globalization also introduces a new sentiment into the Chinese vocabulary, which seems slightly less indulgent in its new context: middle-class guilt. Guo, educated both at the Beijing Film Academy and in London, contemplates life in the modern flats her subjects are constructing, a possibility for her but out of reach for them. That The Concrete Revolution inevitably filters its discoveries through Guo's narration (her first novel comes out in the fall) lends the movie a solipsistic quality, as if Chinese poverty didn't exist until she discovered it, and the narration's facile ironies sometimes betray the complexity of the movie's images, as when Guo snarks that the U.S. Embassy is being enlarged for the 2008 Beijing Olympics so that more Chinese can emigrate to the U.S. "and open more restaurants." But as a companion piece to Jia Zhang-ke's The World, The Concrete Revolution validates the notion of Beijing as the center of a country that is changing too fast for fiction to keep up with it.


April 2005, the Philadelphia Citypapernet

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