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Chinese Reality #12: There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at the Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

Beijing de feng hen da (There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing)

1999. China. Directed by Ju Anqi.

A gonzo camera crew roams the streets of China’s capital, asking random passersby, “Is the wind strong in Beijing?” This ambiguous question provokes a startling variety of responses that expose social and cultural anxieties within contemporary China. The film implicitly poses a larger question about the role of intrusiveness and spontaneity in both documentary filmmaking and everyday social interactions.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

The film’s premise is simple: the crew goes around Beijing randomly asking the question, “Do you think the wind in Beijing is strong?” The ensuing interaction is best understood at the performative rather than semantic level – not in relation to the inane question about weather, but rather as prompting a social interaction. One may observe how – and not only with what words – various people respond to the unexpected question. People on the street react with varying degrees of media savvy – at times baffled by the non-sequitur, on other occasions trying to come up with a narrative to accommodate the question, for example, “It used to be strong before. The protective forest around Beijing works.” The haphazard encounters yield a surprising amount of information about Beijing’s streets and present a slice of life. The principle of spontaneous shooting, identified with the xianchang aesthetics, shows its advantages toward the end of the movie, when the filmmakers run into the penniless and desperate parents of a child with leukemia. The director reacts quickly and follows the parents to see their child, and a moving human story materializes out of the chance meeting.

– Yomi Braester, “Excuse Me, Your Camera Is In My Face.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

The crew of three wander unannounced into through beauty parlours, toilets, schools, restaurants, public squares and all manner of locations. They eavesdrop on public phone conversations, knock on doors and generally have loads of fun capturing some inspired moments which run the gamut of hilarious to intensely moving. The film’s final sequence and only real semblance of cohesive story is a powerful and enormously moving moment. And through it all they paint a picture so detailed and honest that you cannot help but marvel at their clarity of vision.


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