SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2015
By Don Simpson | February 5, 2015
Director: Hao Zhou
Hao Zhou’s The Chinese Mayor appears to have an all access pass to Geng Tanbo’s political life as the incredibly ambitious mayor of Datong, China. Home to approximately three and a half million people, Datong’s coal mining industry has burdened it with air pollution. Commencing in 2008, Tanbo’s mayoral focus is on the redevelopment and modernization of Datong in the hopes of transforming it into a tourist attraction and revitalizing the city’s economy. This means seizing control of large expanses of decrepit apartment buildings and ramshackle shacks in order to make room to reconstruct the city’s 14th century Ming dynasty defensive wall.
As Datong is modernized by Tanbo, Zhou’s camera slyly addresses the inherent contradictions of the landscape. Old monuments — such as the Yungang Grottoes and ancient monasteries — are juxtaposed with the impoverished housing projects, just as tourists exist in apparent contrast to the poor locals. Tanbo, too, is a modern contradiction; an atheist Communist and apparent disciple of Chairman Mao who clandestinely recites Buddhist mantras.
The concept of a Communist mayor who cares so passionately about the economic success of his city seems overwhelming foreign to the Western notion of Communism. Tanbo believes that he knows what is best for Datong, and will presumably do whatever he can to turn his city around, even if that means demolishing hundreds of thousands of homes. Despite the bureaucracy, despite the costs, despite the protests, Tanbo seems to strive to improve the lives of Datong’s citizenry. The local community appreciates Tanbo’s personal attention to their wants and needs, following his tyrannical disrupting of their home lives. On both sides of the story, Tanbo gets away with so much more than his American counterparts would.