Middle Kingdom (China, 2015) [Chinese Visual Festival 2016]
Guo Lin and Huang Ruixin’s Middle Kingdom is an intriguing independent documentary that sheds light on why an endless string of seemingly crazy people would congregate at the Dragon Pavilion in Central China’s Kaifeng every day throughout the year. By zooming in on their activities, the film provides an unusual insight to a part of Chinese society that’s often overlooked.
Dragon Pavilion was part of the imperial palace for several ancient Chinese dynasties, including the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The two stone lions that guard the open square leading to the pavilion alone are nearly 1,000 years old. Because of the site’s long history, many people see it as a temple that possesses divine power, and everyday the pavilion draws large crowds, especially during important festivals like Chinese New Year.
The pavilion goers would gather there in groups or as individuals to engage in a variety of amusing activities that some describe as “practicing austerity.” Some burn incense and otherwise communicate with the gods, engaged in ritual dancing and martial arts. Others dance and salute to imagined deities, expressed their grievances about society’s injustice or complained about difficult family members. Patriotic types waved red flag in frenzy while singing “Socialism is Great,” or bow in silence in four directions, their mouths murmuring something unintelligible.
Some of these people could be seen as mental cases, or at least exhibitionists, though most appear to be devout practitioners who seriously believe in the special power of former kings and ancestors, whose magic they hope might rub off so that they could change their luck. In this way, the square has become a life stage where people feel they can vent their anger, entrust their hope or find a last haven where they can hang out. Among them is a mysterious old vagabond sitting alone on a stone block in the square day after day, letting the hustle and bustle pass him by.
The film is not Guo and Huang’s first attempt at documenting subaltern Chinese life in Kaifeng. In 2013, the pair worked with another director, Li Mingwei, to produce the documentary Wuchao Gate. Middle Kingdom follows in the same vein using the same location and many similar devout visitors, which makes it something of a follow-up project.
But there’s also a marked difference between the two films. In Wuchao Gate, we sense that the directors’ interest is mostly in peoples’ stories, seen in the extra airtime given to what people say and the many close-up shots of characters. In the sequel (the Chinese title of this film is just zhong, or “Middle”), characters’ tales are no longer the documentary’s main focus. Instead, aesthetics and style are given greater priorities. The square and the pavilion, for example, are often shot in perfect symmetry throughout the seasons, from the winter snow to the blisteringly hot summer, rainy days and hazy mornings.
Some of the shots are indeed stunning, particularly one taken at night after the rain, the wet ground creating a mirror image of the beautifully illuminated pavilion. But this shift in focus is not necessarily for the better. It gives the film a certain aimlessness and tedium, with people often seen rather than heard. After awhile, they blend together in their songs and dances, no individuals leaving a lasting impression.
Even the homeless old man – the central figure who wanders on and off screen meant to connect the people frequenting the Dragon Pavilion – comes off as characterless and two-dimensional. Although the scrubby geriatric claims to be an “immortal” fallen from heaven, he doesn’t have much to say about his mortal life. We never find out what his grievances are and why he’s chosen to abandon his family members to “practice austerity” for several decades. The only hint we have about his frustration is a comment about not having enough to eat and him saying, “What a terrible society this is!” Compared to the very vocal and animated folks who appear in Wuchao Gate, the characters in Middle Kingdom seem muted and lethargic.
Still, by returning repeatedly to the square and the pavilion and framing these structures in the center of the shot, the film makes a political connection between the fate of the Chinese people and the historical relic, and by extension, China’s long history. In this sense, the film seems to ask: does Chinese people’s fate really change much throughout history, despite the dynastic shifts and many idiosyncratic transformations? Or are they trapped?
And while we hear fewer stories about the characters, Guo and Huang give voice to people collectively through their activities. One thing the directors do better in Middle Kingdom is to focus on the older folks who frequent the pavilion. These are mostly women in their fifties and sixties. They sing and dance to revolutionary songs and shout slogans in unison, particularly those from the Cultural Revolution days. Most don’t seem very well educated and tend to use the same feverish “red” language (“Resolute and unafraid of sacrifice, we will surmount every difficulty to win victory” in one direct quote from Mao’s little red book) learned in the 1950s and 60s to express their frustration with the rich-poor gap, over corruption and as a “weapon” to get their fighting spirit back in a materialistic world in which they feel lost. Speaking of ironic.
Through their patriotic songs, dances and tributes to Mao, we catch a glimpse of a little known but thought-provoking reality in more remote parts of China – the very real nostalgia for the Mao years and for Mao himself amongst lower strata of Chinese society.
This revelation does not jibe at all with how the West generally sees Mao, who is often painted as a dictator in the Western media, and in that sense, the film provides valuable insight into a part of Chinese society not readily seen or understood outside the country.
Middle Kingdom will be shown as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2016 at King’s Safra on May 14. This will be a joint screening with Zhao Xu’s documentary Regarding Lambs in the City