Zhou Hao’s The Chinese Mayor is a fascinating look at the political machinations of China, the class divides within the country, and the parallels its government structure shares with absurdist fiction. From start to finish, the film is a character study through and through; and to the credit of the work, it never hides this. At the core is Geng Yanbo, the titular ‘Chinese Mayor’ in question. The opening scene – shot manly on a handheld camera – tracking a panicked and determined Gang Yanbo as repeatedly calls for those around him to “open the gates” (as he is running late for a meeting) immediately defines the character the audience is going to be spending the next 90 minutes with. Ambitious to a Machiavellian extent, having a certain aloofness reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Kramer, and a wild perfectionist throughout; Yanbo is a rare find. Zhou Hao’s film is made by its subject, however, the degree to which Yanbo goes to achieve his plan is startling, exciting and disorienting thorughout – in a way that makes The Chinese Mayor a highly memorable piece.
One of the most amusing characteristics of Yanbo’s style of governance is the way in which he communicates with his subordinates. No one in the film completes the tasks exactly how Yanbo has envisioned them in his head – with it becoming clear eventually that this is likely due to the fact he never really is giving the clearest message initially of what he wants to be done. It’s also likely tied to his passion for simply berating and telling his colleagues that they’re useless, in a fairly comedic way. There’s at least 4 separate scenes of The Chinese Mayor, where Yanbo turns up with his entourage and tells one of his workers how the job they’re doing is hopeless. In one particularly amusing moment he pulls a brick out of a recently laid footpath, grabs a fistful of dirt and starts lecturing the works about how they should have used cement to make it fix properly. Hao’s documentary often teeters on framing Geng Yanbo as somewhere in between an inimitable genius and a picky figure obsessed with tearing those around him down in order to make himself look more professional. It’s never really clear, but its hard to imagine many bureaucrats with the same flair, lack of conventionality and constant alienation of those around them as Yanbo; and it makes for a deeply gripping documentary.
The only real criticism that can be laid at the film is the absence of as many broad city shots of Datong and the work Yanbo is doing. The majority of the documentary is focused on the changes being made and the bureaucratic disasters that follow in Yanbo’s organisational trail. The Chinese Mayor leaves an audience hungry to see more of these high-scale changes that are being put into place and the environment where they’re taking place. It fails to give the film the sense of place it articulates so well in the conversations and arguments between the characters, and could have broadened what is only ever really a snapshot. When Yanbo is moved to Taiyuan, deposed as Mayor with no explanation in a moment that feels like absurdist theatre over documentary (especially when he immediately begins doing to Taiyuan what he was doing to Datong, in some sort of nihilistic technocrat cycle) , it’s hard for the audience to feel Yanbo’s loss as strongly as they could have. Instead, the audience reach empathy through the image of a desperate and lost figure – berated by his wife, who frequently calls and abuses him for his absence in her life, saying most cuttingly over the phone “ARE YOU TIRED OF LIVING?!” – who seems to be continually unsure of what he wants.
In the final scene, easily the films most palpable and revealing, Zhou Hao is discussing with Geng Yanbo his impending departure having completed shooting for the documentary. Looking at the camera, Yanbo asks very earnestly what Hao has been filming and tells him very honestly that he’d very genuinely forgotten that he was there. This absolute disconnection seems to frame Yanbo as a character, in that it seems to recur throughout the film that he actually seems to simply forget that there are other people around him. It’s strange, having spent years together, seeing Yanbo end his communication with Hao by telling him he’ll sort a cab out for the morning before disappearing into his elevator. No goodbyes, no other questions; just closing the closing of elevator doors and he’s gone. Yanbo is an isolated idealist for Hao, and he makes one of the more compelling character studies in recent years as a result. His ambitions and achievements are never anything less than gargantuan: relocating hundreds of thousands of homes, demolishing half of a city, and rebuilding a towering wall through Datong – but on a personal level, there’s nothing large about him. Geng Yanbo often looks tired, confused, and only expresses true emotion in the scene where he leaves the city he’s spent so much time working on.
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