The time for action has passed. I’m older now. The time for reflection has started.— Bruno in Le petit soldat (1960/1963)
Early in Jill Li’s debut work, the documentary Lost Course, one of the singled-out social actors Xing shares with Li and the camera that he wants to work for Hong Kong media and report on China, with a particular focus on grassroots movements. In relation to the quote above from Jean-Luc Godard’s own debut feature film, this very brief moment in a three-hour-long film becomes self-reflexive in retrospect, given what Li and her crew managed to produce with Lost Course in following the series of protests, elections, and power struggles that unfold in Xing’s hometown of Wukan Village from 2011 to 2016. In this village located in Guangdong Province, (southern) China, local officials have been clandestinely selling the village’s communal land for years. Once revealed, villagers appealed to the higher authorities to reclaim their land. Their appeals culminated at one point in the “9.21 Incident,” when villagers entered local committee offices and clashes between the two parties ensued on 21 September 2011. Riot police were subsequently called in to suppress the villagers. A couple of months later, alongside collective petitioning for land reclamation, villagers began a general strike in schools and all industries, the point when Li and her crew began shooting their film. All of this information is relayed to the viewer through captions at the film’s opening while on the image-track is a nighttime scene from inside a fishing boat. What follows is the title, Lost Course, a close translation of the original Chinese title 迷航 to which the opening image-track directly refers, with its association of a sea-faring vessel and navigation.
Li’s documentary is a sprawling audiovisual chronicle at once personal and public, individual and collective, of the unfolding of Wukan Village’s fight to get back their land. If the film’s three-hour runtime seems ambitious for first-time filmmaker Li, such ambition is breathtakingly matched and surpassed by its subject of a village protesting against corruption, manipulation, and intimidation tactics by local officials; building consensus and forming a plan to gain autonomy; holding democratic elections; and contending with the plethora of challenges once the idealism of protests and victories gives way to the stark, complex, and bureaucratic realism of self-governance and competing/conflicting perspectives of how to go about it, with the shape-shifting forms of state power ever-present and seeking to dismantle Wukan’s local democratic project before it begins. The editing team of Li, Luke To, and Lau Sze Wai succeed in constructing a portrait and archive of a thoroughly complex socio-political process precisely at grassroots level that is at once enlivening and sobering in its, well, course.
The film is cut into two parts: “Protests” and “After Protests.” The first part introduces not only the cause of protests but also the main actors spearheading and giving form to the protests, range of demands, and approaches to achieving them, including the highly energetic and loquacious Hong; the calm and measured Bo; Lin, the elder (burdened) with the most nuanced and long-term perspective of approaches and situations; and Xing, a young activist and photographer. This first part begins and ends on an extremely exultant note, with the tight solidarity amongst the villagers and their peaceful organisation of protests and gatherings. Further amplifying this solidarity are close-up shots of villagers expressing their support as well as pain due to the situation in which they have been placed, interspersed throughout footage of these gatherings.
Such solidarity and passion does not go unnoticed from the local and/or state officials, for a month later, Hong, Chao, Cheng (Xing’s brother), and Bo are arrested and placed in detention, while Lin goes into hiding and Xing is inadvertently raised into prominence as the face and liaison of leadership. In the course of his detention, Bo dies, the circumstance of which described by authorities does not fail to rile the villagers as to its inauthenticity and to further galvanise their unanimous support (including financial) to the cause. Meanwhile, New York Times photojournalist Du Bin is part of a growing international “news center” (as Xing calls it) gathering in Wukan in support of its fight — or at the very least provide coverage of it from the village’s perspective in response to state-sponsored media attention and/or lack of it.
Though very much underlined by Bo’s death, the release of the aforementioned men, the subsequent announcement (or capitulation) on paper provided by officials that “The village’s demands are legitimate and lawful,” and organising for village elections lead to what is arguably the film’s highest and most exhilarating point: being witness to the development of a democracy in Wukan, with the villagers gaining control of and representation in decision-making processes. It is always an unquestionably moving moment to see a democratic election process in the making, from the setting up of voting booths, to voting, and through to ballot counting. The first part concludes with these achievements in full view. This conclusion is conveniently symmetrical with the opening sequences’ showcasing of solidarity. Yet, as Chao states quite plainly towards the end of this first part, thereby foreshadowing what takes place in the second part: “The real pressure comes after the election.”
Indeed. If the first part’s thematic arc is what can be accomplished through organised protest and unflinching solidarity, reflected practically by a formal symmetry, the second part’s arc arguably involves a clinical examination of power, the dis/possession of it, and the alienating effects of it, from the individual, to the village collective of farmers, to the village committee, and to the faceless and out-of-reach regional-/national-level state officials. Such alienation is elaborated by the kind of footage and interview sequences that are increasingly composed of only a couple of individuals instead of large groups, a marked contrast to the first part’s tendency to always connect the individual to the crowd and vice-versa. They indicate all too clearly the splintering of the collective body of the first part. In other words, in this second part, those demanding their land back and those that constitute the village committee now find themselves on opposite sides.
Over the course of the film, one striking thread that emerges from the film’s editing and bridges the two parts is a series of conversations between Lin and Xing. Lin is the eldest among those organising and leading the struggle for land reclamation and more control in representation, while Xing is one of the youngest in participating in the struggle but also torn over either following his individual desires related to music-making (and/or leaving Wukan) and a sense of village piety, as it were, which means more actively engaging in local politics and helping to see through that villagers get back their land. The manner in which their discussion of matters evolves throughout the film, including their growing isolation from each other (both physically and ideologically), is in fact a micro-level expression of the titular alienating and splintering “lost course” of the second part. When set against the larger context of their colleagues being picked off one after the other, the film suggests that such derailment ultimately and tragically only further entrenches those highest in power.
Lost Course is part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films. It is currently showing in the virtual screening rooms of Film at Lincoln Center (NY), BAMPFA (Bay Area), and Laemmle (LA).
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.