Trapped in the City of a Thousand Mountains (The Netherlands/China, 2018)

Filmed in the slipstream of China’s recent hip-hop explosion, David Verbeek’s short documentary Trapped in the City of a Thousand Mountains surveys the aspiring rappers of Chongqing as they strive for self-expression in a cultural environment where rules are vaguely sketched but strictly enforced. It’s also a portrait of urbanization with the development of one of China’s largest cities seen from the perspective of young inhabitants who barely remember the days when much of its futuristic sprawl was farmland, if at all. Seeking a shared experience through music and tattoos, they have formed tight-knit hip-hop ‘families’ that engage in “real talk” over spicy hotpot.

One of the three rappers profiled, Lil Ya, explains that how her involvement in this sub-culture was prompted by The Rap of China, which is very much a commercial phenomenon. Produced by the online video platform iQiyi, the television series took hip-hop mainstream in China, even if it was almost as famous for the signature question of celebrity judge Kris Wu – “Can you freestyle?” – as the competitive talent on display. However, a swift moral backlash occurred as a result of hip-hop’s propensity for challenging the status quo by frankly discussing topics that challenge the status quo. PG One, a popular contestant on The Rap of China, became a scapegoat when news of his scandalous affair with married actress Li Xiaolu was immediately followed by complaints that his lyrics promoted casual sex and drug use.

Since his documentary maintains a borderline claustrophobic focus on the Chongqing scene, Verbeek doesn’t delve into these controversies, but does include the official announcement that public hip-hop events and broadcasts were no longer allowed. As with much of the rhetoric in Xi Jinping’s much-vaunted ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’, some of these directives were purposefully non-specific in order to cause confusion. It’s a further example of the politics of inconvenience with which the state conspires to bring about dwindling enthusiasm and interest. To varying degrees, it’s an approach that has been applied to independent film festivals, music events, and art exhibitions, severely limiting the range of spaces where critical voices can be heard. Mostly lit by the electronic glow of their cellphones, which facilitate group organizing but also state monitoring, the rappers here follow the knee-jerk clampdown online, struggling to ascertain what is allowed within these guidelines. As rapper turned green tea seller Master Da puts it, “In China, you never actually know what is forbidden.”

Verbeek filmed his debut feature Shanghai Trance (2008) in China but is better known on the festival circuit for his subsequent dramas How to Describe a Cloud (2013) and An Impossibly Small Object (2018), which were shot in Taiwan. As a filmmaker whose career is largely based in the region, he evidently emphasizes with how his subject’s creativity is potentially being stifled while mining their densely urbanized environment for imposing visual effect. Almost entirely shooting at night, he shows rappers laying down tracks while gazing out of high-rise apartment windows with the prison-like design of such anonymous housing emphasized by the neon lights that illuminate the structures. It’s an inverted vision of containment as it’s inside that his subjects enjoy a measure of freedom. Outside, conversely, there’s a sense of being watched as Verbeek tracks ominously behind Master Da as he walks through a market area. The soundtrack bristles with the urgency of underground hip-hop but Verbeek also employs droning ambient textures noise over footage of the Chongqing club scene, which saps the crowd of its momentum and leaves them in a daze. Even at just over twenty minutes in length, it’s a relief when, towards the end, we get glimpses of a daytime Chongqing that is markedly less dystopian.

It’s not completely pessimistic, though, as this is a sharp snapshot of a clued-in underground scene with restless subjects that you’ll want to see more of. Verbeek touches on how some are seizing hip-hop’s performative method of communication. Ghostism lives up to his name with a macabre appearance and a penchant for shooting expressionistic videos in which he is tied up in creepily empty spaces. “I prefer the deepest of the night when the lights are off,” he muses. Meanwhile, Master Da plots a comeback that involves getting into fighting shape, commenting that he has dropped a significant amount of weight to shed his previous gangster rapper image. Others have trouble holding the persona. A male youth raps brashly about repression and rebellion, only to go rather gauche after fluffing his lyrics because the presence of Verbeek’s camera has made him nervous.

Although the documentary finds China’s hip-hop community at a time of disruption, Verbeek never suggests that this is the beginning of the end. Rather, he has vividly captured part of a recurring cycle where seasoned figures like Master Da are able to recognize the patterns, only for the new blood to get palpably caught in the moment.