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merely floating in the world

dan edwards: zhao dayong’s ghost town


Ghost Town Ghost Town
THE FIRST DECADE OF THE 21ST CENTURY HAS SEEN AN EXPLOSION IN CHINESE DOCUMENTARY PRODUCTION, AS LIGHTWEIGHT DIGITAL CAMERAS HAVE BECOME READILY AVAILABLE AND THE ONCE TIGHT CONTROLS OVER CHINESE LIFE HAVE RELAXED. ZHAO DAYONG’S NEW FILM GHOST TOWN—RECENTLY UNVEILED TO GREAT ACCLAIM AT THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL—IS EMBLEMATIC OF A MOVEMENT GIVING VOICE TO STORIES LONG EXCLUDED FROM THE SCREEN.

Ghost Town is set in the small, remote settlement of Zhiziluo in China’s far south, a former county seat now abandoned by the Chinese government. Zhao stumbled upon the town while scouting locations for another project earlier this decade. “After my first trip to Zhiziluo in 2002, I made trips in 2003 and 2004, staying there for two months each time”, recalls the director. “My original plans to make a film there didn’t pan out, but the people made a deep impression on me and my thoughts often went back to them. I returned again in 2006 and filmed there for 12 months in total.”

Zhao achieves an extraordinary intimacy with his subjects, no doubt partly due to the amount of time he spent living in the town, but also through his approach to the filmmaking process. The nature of digital camera technology allowed him to work without a professional crew and instead recruit townspeople to help with the shoot. Zhao explains, “I had three people assisting me, all local villagers. For example, the truck driver who appears in part two of the film often helped me with sound recording. This way I was able to maintain close relationships with people in the village.”

The involvement of locals is implied in the film’s opening moments, when we see a group of villagers engaged in roadworks staring at the camera, jesting with the offscreen operator. We hear a voice exclaim, “Wow, you can see everything through this lens! Now stand up nice and tall! Look this way!”, to which one of the women in shot jokingly replies, “Fine, go ahead and film. But there’s nothing worth filming here”, provoking laughter amongst her companions. From this opening sequence, Zhao’s camera both participates in, and documents life in the town.

The film’s three-hour length is divided into three chapters, each delving into the lives of a different set of characters. “Voices” follows Yuehan, the pastor of the town’s Christian church founded by missionaries in the 1930s. His 87-year-old father, who calls himself “John the Elder”, is also a priest, having been introduced to Christianity directly by missionaries as a young man. John speaks briefly about the persecution he suffered from the late 1950s, when the missionaries were expelled by the Communists and local believers were incarcerated—in John’s case for 20 years. He claims 95% of those arrested didn’t survive their ordeal.

We follow John and Yuehan as they make their rounds and receive visitors, providing a degree of material and emotional support to their followers. Initially the two appear close, but it becomes apparent that a deep rift exists between father and son, arising from the emotional scars inflicted on John during his two decades in prison.

Part two of Ghost Town, titled “Recollections,” traces the strain placed on personal relationships by Zhiziluo’s backwater status and economic stagnation. Li Yongqiang is a hopeless drunk whose wife is seeking a divorce, while the young driver Pu Biqiu faces harassment from local police and suffers from a lack of work. Pu is involved with a local girl, but when cashed-up out-of-towners arrive in Zhiziluo wanting to buy a wife, her parents pressure the girl to leave Pu so she can be married off.

Ghost Town’s final chapter is perhaps the most confronting, as we follow Ah Long, an aggressive 12-year-old living alone, without parental support or supervision. One night he participates in a disturbing exorcism with other male villagers, calling on the “mountain spirits” to drive out the evil possessing two local men. In the film’s concluding sequence, we see Ah Long sitting lost and alone at the back of the church during a service, watching silently as the small congregation sings a hymn.

At one level the townspeople of Zhiziluo are clearly victims of China’s new economic order, which has seen major coastal cities greatly enriched at the expense of rural areas. Zhao resists straightforward socio-economic analysis however, instead implying the aimless existence of the town’s inhabitants is symptomatic of a broader malaise. “Through the town I began to see and reflect on my own life”, Zhao says of his experiences shooting Ghost Town. “A process of self-reflection is, for me, the essence of filmmaking. As I was living with these people I came to realize just how uncertain their lives and fates were. The empty government buildings in which they live do not belong to them, and the fate of the place itself, of its architecture, was also in question. They were merely floating in the world, without any sense of safety and security, and their existential condition was basically no different from my own.”

The town’s church provides some material and spiritual support, but none of the villagers appears particularly committed to Christian beliefs, which seem no less foreign an imposition than the Maoist doctrines of earlier times. At one point a villager asks John the Elder why they are not allowed to sing and play guitar, to which the aging priest can only reply, “This is what the missionaries taught us.” Furthermore, the church appears powerless in the face of forces atomising the personal relations we see in the film. Even the priest Yuehan feels estranged from his father. The last sequence of the orphan Ah Long sitting in the church feels more like a final affirmation of his isolation than a scene of community belonging.

After lingering with Ah Long, the film abruptly cuts to its final image—a statue of Mao standing forlornly outside a deserted building, the paint peeling off his towering form. The statue’s magnanimous, guiding hand raised over the town looks absurd given the social, political and philosophical vacuum we have inhabited for the previous three hours.

Ghost Town doesn’t purport to provide solutions to the situations it depicts, but rather asks viewers to consider, along with the filmmaker and the town’s residents, how we find meaning in a world seemingly without philosophical or ideological bearings. As Zhao Dayong comments, “Film, like painting, is a method and technique of thought. All forms of creativity are rooted in this question—how to think and reflect.” The tragedy is that Chinese audiences are largely excluded from this process. Mainland television broadcasts only state-approved products and commercial cinemas are only permitted to screen licensed films, meaning documentaries like Ghost Town are rarely seen inside the People’s Republic. Fortunately for international audiences, the questions Ghost Town poses resonate far beyond China’s borders.


Ghost Town, director, producer Zhao Dayong, producer David Bandurski, People’s Republic of China, 2009

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 22

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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