Saturday, April 12, 2008

[SIFF08] Boomtown Beijing

Director Tan Siok Siok calls this an elaborate school project, because her collaborators are made up of mostly students from the Beijing Film Academy. Of late the Olympic related news are centered upon the ugliness of how self-centred "righteous" groups hijack the spirit of the games and go on politicizing their own cause. There are separate platforms to address those concerns, and to try and ruin fine opportunities for athletes who train hard for the event, just plain reeks.

And it's not just the athletes who are looking forward to the Games to pit their skills against one another to prove themselves to jump higher and run faster. Tan Siok Siok's documentary turns the spotlight on the ordinary citizens of Beijing, how the upcoming games are affecting their lives, but more so, how each of them, through their individual minute part they are playing, contribute their small effort to the collective good and pride of their city and country, whereby a little act goes a long way, with attempts to combat city smog, protecting the environment, and of course cleaning up spit - you just have to watch this as it's so touching and goes to show that there's no effort too small to make an impact.

Indeed these are likely to be exciting times, full of buzz, in the China's capital city of Beijing, and watching how things get organized, offers a very interesting parallel as to how Singapore gets things galvanized for major world events too. Cab drivers are carefully handpicked for courses to get themselves up to speed with local contemporary history and locations, and get offered the opportunity to be designated chauffeurs. We go on a frenzy with improving road infrastructure, and various cleanliness campaigns to continue to project that clean and green image for visitors. But of course there's always the headache of trying to implement a mindset shift, with ours being our graciousness, and with the Beijingers, the propensity to spit. When Xu Qing the model cab driver recounts the uphill task of battling the traffic gridlock issue, I immediately knew what he was referring to, as I encountered a notorious one in Beijing back in end 2006, where for the first time traffic came to a standstill in the middle of a traffic junction, and I was stuck for more than 2 hours, literally not moving.

Besides Xu Qing, the documentary also looks at the personal lives and aspirations of ordinary men in the street, such as Zhou Bowenrui, the 12 year old student who dreams of being a torchbearer for the Games, blind athlete Zhao Hongbo trying hard to make it to the qualifying rounds of the Para-Olympics, in what is probably his last chance to do so before age and deteriorating health robs him, and Liu Zhi, and elderly road sweeper who's an evangelist of his own amazing Olympic logo ribbon dance, plying his trade in open parks in order to impart his knowhow to the masses, and dreams of choreographing something for the Games too.

There are numerous candid moments caught on film, which makes this documentary highly watchable and memorable, with little room to think that it would have been manufactured for the camera, such as the very fun parallels drawn from Olympian activities, and the everyday activities that we do, such as running along our busy lives, or lifting of heavy shopping bags. One scene that stood out, involves the Military Police and their struggle to get their English skills up to speed, so that they would be able to handle queries and have decent conversations with Games participants. No mean feat, but those guys really looked determined to get it right, even though it's a major personal undertaking that no degree of brawn could help.

With Olympic fever slowly brewing in the run up to the opening of the Games this year on 8th August, Boomtown Beijing drills down to the individual, personal stories, and this are but just 3 in this documentary, nicely put together, linked up to provide a sample snapshot that the Games is not just solely for the athletes, but serving to inspire masses of everyday folks.

Right: Director Tan Siok Siok

There was a Q&A session after the screening with director Tan Siok Siok. As usual, in the interest of (my) time, this is only an excerpt, and I have paraphrased (for the better I hope) for clarity and readability. For those who are spoiler wary, please read something else. You have been warned.

Q: How long did the whole process tak?
A: It took about 1/2 year from May to early December. I was living in the city for most of the time, and a lot of elements were discovered when living in the city.

Q: How did you ultimately decide on which 3 characters?
A: It's a very complex process. It's a question of who's allowing you to talk to them, which is a challenge in China and whether their story can communicate and carry itself, whether it is easy to grasp? I went by the principle of treating each character as a superhero with a weapon, such as the old man with the ribbon, and the young boy with the torch and wings. It becomes symbolically easy to understand with the usual metaphors linked to the Olympics, and the ability of the person to perform, their emotional weight and how they communicate on camera. There are tradeoffs and with working against time, so I had to always decide on the pros and cons when picking a certain person.

Q: What about working against time as you mentioned?
A: Time is a question of resources. The more time spent, the more opportunity costs involved. And of course to finish it before the Olympics this year for obvious reasons.

Q: Have you shown this in China, particularly Beijing
A: For the final 100 days countdown, there will be a series of charity screenings in China.

Q: What was your point of view when making the film, is it from the point of view of a Singaporean, an Asian or a global citizen?
A: The original objective is to find balance between the Western way, where you'll know how the movie will be from the start, and the Chinese way, in making a film that will appeal to either side of the audience. Ultimately the audience will decide whether the film is successful or not.

Q: How did the shot of the Military Police learning English come about?
A: I had 19, 20 year old students sent out to look for characters, and the scene with the Military Police learning English was at the suggestion of one of them. I decided to include it because it is an unusual, interesting scene, with their smart uniforms and small seats, and it touched on the whole idea about getting ready, with a sense of humour.

Q: What happened to the characters after the film?
A: Their lives go on. The boy went on with his student life. The last heats selection was in March, and I'm not sure how the athelete going blind did, but his chance was quite slim. The old man with the ribbon is quite a sad character, though epitomizes the pride of Beijingers

Q: How have you grown personally as a filmmaker?
A: I don't see myself as a filmmaker because for a long time I worked as an executive producer. I worked a lot with different directors to shape their films, so this first time was accidental, and I need some time to get used to the idea.

Q: Could you speak about the soundscape, as it had a lot of layers with both modern and traditional sounds in a seamless fashion.
A: My sound engineers were born and bred in Beijing, and the sound editor was one of the top editors in the Chinese film industry. There weer a lot of elements they helped me with, and the ideas were from them.

The SIFF Singapore Filmmakers Interview Series
Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World
HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love
ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II
Sherman ONG, Screenwriter-Director of Hashi
James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC
Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak
Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca

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