Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s The Crisis of the Real: New Chinese Independent Documentaries. For more information, visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Made by renowned artist Ai Weiwei and his filmmaking team, Ping’an Yueqing begins with Qian Shunnan in his sparse home, crying out simultaneously praises of the Chinese Communist Party and calls for an investigation of and revenge for his son Qian Yunhui’s death. In 25 December 2010, in the eastern city of Yueqing of Zhejiang Province, village leader Yunhui was struck by a truck and crushed underneath it. When photos of his body underneath the truck appeared on the Internet, a resounding outcry of foul play arose. Revealing the paradox inherent in Shunnan’s cries of praise and revenge — not to mention in the film’s own title, which means ‘Peaceful Yueqing’ — is what constitutes the film’s power. As a direct response to Shunnan’s plea, the film conducts an unofficial inquiry into Yunhui’s death against an unsatisfactorily curt official one. In the process, Ai and his collaborators reveal how Yueqing is anything but peaceful.
As the film unfolds, it discloses more about Yunhui to warrant suspicions of a premeditated murder in the name of protected interests: a record of arrests and imprisonment, such that during his six-year tenure as an elected leader of Zhaiqiao Village he was in prison for four of those years, including before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yunhui, it turns out, had been a very respected and vocal activist for villagers’ rights in the face of big business-government deals and abuses, particularly the building of an electric power plant in the city underwritten by land grabbing. In turn, the film also addresses why exactly Yunhui (as well as the filmmakers and the viewers) should be concerned with the rights of villagers.
Also constituting the film’s power is its function as a platform for locals. On the one hand, a majority of them limit themselves to expressing their frustrations and fears with speaking out since they do not want to be detained, which happened to those who had been witness to Yunhui’s death. On the other hand, their very reticence is made defiant because it betrays all too clearly their double marginalisation and silencing: being subject to government construction projects that violate their rights to the land; and being persecuted for protesting such projects, which are inevitably related to speaking out about Yunhui’s death. As both a platform for villagers and informal investigator of Yunhui’s death, Ai and his film crew become targets of observation by plainclothes. Yet they, too, express defiance when they confront the plainclothes and enact a reversal of silencing when the latter can only sprint away from Ai and company’s questions.
Though it begins with the death of Yunhui, the film circles ever more expansively around the event and gradually unearths acute distrust, disharmony, discontent, and disconnect among and between villagers and (local) authorities. By unfolding its investigation in this manner, the film presents a society profoundly on edge not unlike that found in Huang Weikai’s Disorder (2009) and is no less disturbing to see. Perhaps what is more disturbing is the fact that, as activist/ blogger Wang Xiaoshan states at one point, such a case with contested circumstances is not rare; in fact, similar cases have happened repeatedly, such that the details no longer matter to a certain extent because they point to the bigger issues of the confiscation of land from villagers and (lack of) compensation and the convergence of government and business.
Most emblematic of the chaos and contestation involved in this case as well as the bigger picture of the politics of power-land-money is the footage recorded by Yunhui’s wristwatch while he was walking along the side of the road before and when he was hit by the truck. The film returns to the footage several times throughout its running time, recalling in some sense the stylised reenactments that loop with different permutations in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) in its investigation of the murder of a policeman. Or resembling the needle of a record player getting stuck and playing the same portion of a song, as if prompting one to really listen to what exactly is (not) being said, so the film gets ‘stuck’ and replays the footage, trying to gauge what it is/not showing. For the footage remains questionable and ambiguous, obtained initially by a villager who was subsequently arrested for ‘obstructing official duties.’
Initially, the film too is seemingly ambiguous in style or form to present its investigation, content with simply capturing informal testimony among locals from Yueqing and Zhejiang Province about what is missing from the mainstream (read: state) media channels and their reports/ conclusions on Yunhui’s death. However, upon closer inspection the film masks a murder mystery-like structure within its comparison of representations between locals and the state of what happened. Consequently, the tenuousness (even manufacturing) of truth about Yunhui’s death by official, mainstream outlets becomes just as much the subject as the guerilla-style investigation of Yunhui’s death. With its handheld, shaky, imperfect look and haphazard form (moving at will between a first-person style of shooting and sit-down interviews, observational/ participatory immersive interaction with social actors and excerpts of state channel news reports), the film in fact mimics the complexity and chaos of what happened and why, and why what happened is so heavily contested, re-represented, or ‘disappeared.’