A friend of mine recently returned from a week-long business trip to Beijing. He talked about the tremendous size of the city, the ten traffic loops that surround it, the incredible cleanliness (people mopping the roads), and the complete absence of birds (as far as he could tell).

He also noted that bulldozers were busy demolishing buildings and clearing entire lots, right up to the edge of many roads.

Having lived in Beijing for more than a dozen years, filmmaker Xiaolu Guo has paid particular attention to those bulldozers. More importantly, she has meditated upon what the tremendous upswing in construction -- and inevitable destruction -- has wrought, and what it may mean for the future of Beijing, and China itself, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.

She distills these thoughts in The Concrete Revolution, which is less a straight-forward documentary than an absorbing personal essay.

As a starting point, she talks to some of the construction workers recruited from rural villages. They are housed up to 12 in a room and provided with meals that appear barely adequate for their hard physical labor. They must wait to be paid until their specific building project is completed, which may take a year or more.

The workers parrot the party line, speaking positively (and briefly) about the beneficial effects of the construction projects, as managers in red helmets circle warily nearby. One construction worker finally speaks his mind, breaking down in tears as he thinks of his wife and family, left behind but not benefiting from his sacrifices because he has not been paid yet.

Later the worker literally has words put into his mouth by an off-screen manager.

A young man, so ashamed of his work (contracting workers to do demolition work) that he tries to pass himself off as a construction worker, speaks despairingly of his unhappiness and future prospects. A woman seeks proper compensation for her home, the last remaining on an otherwise demolished block, so she stubbornly refuses to move out. The day after she speaks to the filmmakers, her house is being torn down and she is nowhere to be found.

The director relates her own experiences. Like the construction workers, she too grew up in a rural village. But she was able to attend a university, which changed her government I.D. from "Peasant" to "Citizen," and elevated her station in life. That doesn't keep her from wondering what price her generation has paid because of their desire for everything new. She herself has lived in both the older parts of the city and the newest, and questions whether communities can ever be what they were if everyone is sealed off in their own private apartments.

In a succinct 60 minutes, the director sums up decades of cultural references and puts the entire story in sociological perspective. The film allows space for contemplation within its running time by including several bridging sequences that are reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai's signature style, circa Chungking Express (diffused footage of rushing traffic and pedestrians shot at odd angles), but keeps the emphasis on the people affected.

The Concrete Revolution raises many questions that are bound to be asked with increasing frequency as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing approach. Xiaolu Guo provides fresh and valuable first-hand social criticism that should fascinate anyone with an appetite for information about modern-day China.



July 23, 2006 – Twitch, Peter Martin


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