Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Le tribunal itinérant Directed by Zheng Wenqing

A woman tearfully reads a letter from her paraplegic husband which grants her a divorce from him. The husband looks on as she reads his words advising her to divorce him so that she can have time for herself and to look after their son instead of being a full time carer for him. The wife breaks down in tears and we catch a glimpse of something approaching smugness at the emotional outpouring he has elicited with his self-sacrifice. The court official, frustrated with the lack of efficiency first tells the wife to calm down, then asks her to pass the letter to a court official who reads the letter as disinterestedly as if he's explaining the rules of Monopoly - the emotional words of the wife, punctuated with breathy cries are transformed into a dull bureaucratic legal confirmation, a tick in column A and column B so to speak. These two elements of the documentary were the elements that most lucidly translated to my own experience of China. The first being the naïve sentimentality woven into the framework of personal tragedy, be it a wife eulogizing her husband's self-sacrifice, or the evident pride with which the husband perceives himself in her reaction. These scenes, which are common in Chinese soap operas and films (think A World without Thieves, Together or even Infernal Affairs in the scene where the policeman is thrown off the roof.) They seem at times to be the equivalent of corny lifetime movies, when children get cancer but remain irritatingly upbeat about it or the emotive conceits of film noir. There is an unashaméd yank at the heartstrings that is counterbalanced by the other element of Chinese culture that hit me hard in the culture clash, that is the unrelenting Kafkaesque nature of bureaucracy, where people's (overly-) emotional rending is treated like a tax receipt that has been filled out incorrectly. The itinerant court sets up in absurd locations, carrying the plaque of the republic which is hung over classrooms, and in muddy village squares. The judges seem reasonable enough though they play to the crowd at times who seem to have come for the entertainment value (I'm reminded of the staring immobile faces that surround Chinese car accidents.) The documentary's grasp of these elements of Chinese society, both its strength and its weakness, make the documentary interesting for foreign viewers, as this is the elements of culture that are so alien to the contemporary Western world.

Interesting but not essential viewing 3/5

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