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SIFF Review: Boomtown Beijing by Tan Siok Siok

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Not too long ago the line went something like this: If it wasn’t for Singapore and its very own unstoppable rise, the world would surely take note of the things going on in China.

bb2.jpgTo better this dreadful situation and raise the level of international exposure and coverage, the red mainland had to pull off something special – which they did by securing the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing – this we know, of course.

We are also aware that there is a torch relay currently underway, and it seems to spark quite a bit of controversy along its high-profile tour. This is for the launch, as well as for the itinerary homecoming of that precious fire into its next host town of Beijing, and is part of the excitement and frenzy preceding the actual event. Along with that is a public relations issue implicit (some have already called it a disaster), which brings home not just a spirited flame but the special brand of ambivalence that lies in having a celebration of freedom and equality being staged in a totalitarian country.

But words and images are out there, because reports are almost continuous as things gear up to make a huge impression; and the world is watching. As expected, the media get their neatly organised treats to tell just about anyone about the polished side of affairs in Beijing (and for obvious reasons), whether they are interested or not.

bb1.jpgWhat to make of it then? Do you just switch off your TV? In any case, the decision is yours, but be informed that there can be different angles to even the biggest stories, surely to any government rallying. Tan Siok Siok’s feature length documentary Boomtown Beijing explores some of the less covered aspects of China’s new found ambitions as it tries, in the words of the director, “to give a human face to the story”.

For those of you who didn’t catch it at the SIFF screenings earlier this month, here is a recap:

We begin in the summer before it all starts, taken by a cab driver through several stints in the fast changing city, seeing an urban space in transformation as it prepares to meet the pre-ordered benchmarks of a sporting metropolis ready to present a nation. Drive-in workout stations contrast with major construction sites inescapable in the background, while taxis are pushed manually to proceed in their queue as a means to exercise and keep the environment green. Such are the little snippets of absurdity that fill out a picture of Beijing as it finds itself in a communal effort to attain the prescribed goals – on target – and have everybody, from elementary school kids to the policemen, trimmed to fit the occasion.

bb3.jpgAs these impressions create a general flow and give a realistic temperature to the climate setting of Beijing in the year 2007, they also form the backdrop of three carefully chosen life stories that illuminate some of the elation and high-flying hopes that have taken over so much of the prevalent city spirit. A veteran dust sweeper dreams of staging a mass performance of a special ribbon dance which he has perfected into an art – something which he now tirelessly passes on to others in public places; a blind athlete with great dedication tries to make it once more onto the Paralympics national squad to make good his past failure to win a medal, while a young teenage boy challenges too strict age regulations to become a torch-bearer participant in the spectacle, but unsuccessfully.

These three little tellings give the audience a glimpse into middle-class life in the capital, and successively and jointly they translate the national paraded aspirations from their big-picture perspective onto a human scale – you can’t help but follow these simple accounts, for they are quite revealing.

bb4.jpgBoomtown Beijing also features some visual irony in its framing. The rush hour bustle seems just like another city, but it takes place under one of those unmistakably post-Maoist speech banners so funnily outdated (or are they?) that are meant to incite the masses. At this point you might experience a visitation by this strange feeling again, that despite everything labelled “progress” of late, these billboards still could actually work (in China today). This is a well-crafted film with very good editing, interspersing short segments of night traffic and the global appeal of big city restlessness fittingly. It gives an almost bequeathing pulse and rather modest pacing to the images that make it easy to follow along with the essayistic unfolding.

However, despite all of that, there are some aspects to it that impair what is otherwise an agreeable film. The torch-bearer, for instance, is really charming (and some might be biased here), if just a little too ingratiating a representative, you can’t help but notice the choice. The documentary seems a bit cool, so well-assorted and tidy, almost to the point of being calculated, that it feels just too guided in its delivery.

Don’t get me wrong, surely one isn’t obliged to point out the shortcomings in some giant bird’s nest, or the lack of air to breathe when confronting Beijing and modern China these days. There are other issues worth addressing, no doubt.

bb5.jpgBoomtown Beijing is simply too much elementary film school (and corporate video in part, clinging to surfaces) to qualify as a powerful and memorable documentary that lasts, and can convincingly fit on the big screen. It has an artificial flow – perhaps a little more meandering instead of streamlined presentation would have strengthened the human dimension and effect. The impressions it candidly and beautifully aligns – eventually they don’t sum up any precise picture or vivid perspective of the city’s many faces, nor do they muster the strength of a convincing argument. At the end of the day, there simply isn’t enough substance that will have the viewing experience stand out and stay on in your memory for very long.

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