The train has been a favoured narrative element of copious directors from Josef von Sternberg to Alfred Hitchcock to Wes Anderson, but in The Iron Ministry, this set of vehicles takes on an emblematic role for documentarian J. P. Sniadecki, whose previous sensory ethnographies of contemporary China include People’s Park (2012) and Yumen (co-directed with Xiang Huang, 2013). Filmed on various journeys between 2011 and 2013, but edited to feel like one long ride, this pared-down mosaic examines the People’s Republic within the narrow confines of the trains that millions of citizens use annually to crisscross the country for reasons mostly linked to the nation’s patterns of economic development. Sniadecki’s emphasis on minutiae may create the claustrophobic sense of breathing the same stale air as his subjects for 82 minutes, but a healthy impression of China’s working class nonetheless emerges.
Eschewing such traditional devices as a contextual introduction, explanatory text, or voice-over narration, The Iron Ministry throws the viewer into the environment with a dark screen accompanied by the repetitious chugging sound of the train, then observational shot of its machinery, echoing early records of industrialisation. When passengers are introduced, Sniadecki strikes a curiosity piquing balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar – the situation of travellers boarding a train and storing their luggage is immediately relatable but the decision to withhold subtitles during the establishing stretch means that the viewer (if unable to understand Mandarin) experiences a measure of disorientation. Once the train gets moving – and translation helpfully kicks-in – a range of attitudes towards the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s unprecedented growth are expressed in these tightly packed interiors.
Rules regarding filming on trains in China are, like many bureaucratic matters in the country, something of a grey area as in that the law prohibits it without a permit but restrictions are rarely enforced. There’s a moment in Guo Xiaolu’s meta-film How is Your Fish Today? (2006) when she is asked to cease filming while taking the Harbin to Mohe service, and Sniadecki receives a similarly terse instruction here when he tries to record inside one of the more spacious carriages, is mostly able to capture footage openly, even interviewing a conductor (“Does your thing record sound?”, the employee asks after commenting that the rules of the railway have become too strict in recent years). Likewise, the conversations of the passengers skirt the official line, with many optimistic about the future of their homeland but not shying away from mentioning the side effects of its economic boom, such as increasing living costs, environmental hazards, and how it is almost impossible for ordinary workers to get on the housing ladder.
Sniadecki alternates between observing and interviewing passengers (but still remaining off-camera), deftly ingratiating himself with fluent Mandarin (which is praised by one passenger). The smoking areas near the lavatories seems to be the place for more sensitive topics as it is there that Sniadecki interacts with a pair of Muslims who discuss religious freedom in China and the lack of mosques, although a casual mood is maintained. Indeed, the candid, thoughtful, and humorous manner in which a myriad of subjects are discussed here dispels any notion that the hardline policies of China’s government has at all limited the manner in which people convey their views socially. In China, Xi Jinping’s sweeping slogan of “The Chinese Dream” is often seen emblazoned on bright red posters accompanied by the image of a high-speed train. Some of the passengers on this journey concede that they will probably never achieve their ambitions, even though they will keep on striving, whereas others have modest goals – one girl simply wants to swap factory work for a job in a department store because it might change her mood.
With the passing landscape seen only through the windows, Sniadecki commits to the boredom of the long haul, but ends up with a documentary that is anything but. Rather, The Iron Ministry lulls the viewer, as if you are actually traveling across China and occasionally nod off, only to wake up and find yourself surrounded by a new group of traveling acquaintances. Brief ‘excitement’ is offered by the arrival of the snack cart, only for crushing disappointment to set in when the attendant breaks the news that he has sold all the instant noodles. Other commerce orientated vignettes include the odd sight of a makeshift meat stall in the passage between cars with produce hanging from hooks and the efforts of a cleaning cream salesman who performs an impromptu demonstration on a passenger’s filthy sneaker.
The sense of a single journey is briefly broken towards the end of the documentary when Sniadecki shows some footage recorded on one of the newer express trains where a few passengers sit separately, all fixated on their cellphones. It would be wrong to suggest that Sniadecki is being didactic with his juxtaposition of economic classes in transit, but the deadly hum of this sleek new train makes one want to get back to the cheap seats of the rickety old models where camaraderie gives rise to an enlightening social microcosm.
The Iron Ministry is available on DVD as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.