Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Iron Ministry

USA  China  (82 mi)  2014  d:  J.P. Sniadecki

Guest review by Evan Wang

With the perfect Mandarin he speaks, director J.P. Sniadecki doesn’t leave the audience much indication of his existence in this documentary, even though he is apparently involved in most of the conversations with other passengers. His face is never shown, but not deliberately hidden. Quite brilliantly, he managed to become an undistinguished part of the environment; an observer, but not more so than anyone else on the trains.

Being a member of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, where acclaimed documentaries Leviathan and Manakamana were produced, Sniadecki has obviously added a distinctive touch of his own to the lab’s elaborately conceived cinema vérité style. As shown in The Iron Ministry, his films might seem less “sensory” or meditative, but definitely have more to say on the ethnographic part, benefiting from the higher extent of involvement. After all, it is almost an impossible task to be a “fly on the wall” at probably the most packed location in the most populous country of this world.

After an opening that consists of complete darkness and the noise generated by a departing train, the audience is invited on board to start an overnight journey across China, which in fact took the filmmaker 3 years to shoot. Therefore, besides spatial dimensions, we are also travelling through time. In one of the very first eye-catching scenes, a blood-dripping liver just hangs there while someone doing his butcher works in the soiled cart. For me, a train-traveler in China for about 20 years, this is something I have never seen. According to Sniadecki, trains like that have already disappeared from the rails by the time the documentary is finished, and we would find ourselves in the comfy space inside the newest bullet trains toward the end of this film. Between these two points, we hear from all kinds of people from different parts of the country, talking about their stories, political opinions and future plans, including a “miracle kid” improvising a funny parody of the do’s and don’ts announced through the loudspeakers. More importantly, we also see them reading, knitting, dining, and sleeping in every available corner of the carts. Balancing all those are rather abstract shots of sceneries outside the windows, usually blurred by speed, and close-ups of curious mechanical parts on the trains, which reminded me of what I saw earlier this year in an American docudrama, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors. Also echoing that film, the sometimes disorganized collage is well unified by the delicate sound design, mixing together broadcasted music and chaotic tumult to an intriguing effect. At certain points, it is pretty much hypnotic, but for anyone who shares the same experience, only in the way that it is supposed to be during such a journey. At the end of it, the camera lingers on piles of discarded packages from instant food, and other trash waiting to be cleaned up. Instead of the most awful place to be trapped in for two days of your time, however, it looks more like the aftermath of a carnival. It is not just what goes on aboard the trains, a temporary respite before they reach their next destination, it is the life of Chinese people transitioning into the future.

Before going back to darkness, the last identifiable image that appears on the screen is an eye, probably from the train operator, once again implying what the film is really about. Theoretically, filming on trains is prohibited in China, but for Sniadecki and the people present in his film, what is not allowed to be documented, is seen.

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