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Hometown Superheroes: Spectacle and Samaritans take Beijing

"Tape" (dir. Li Ning)

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

A fleet of masked vigilantes are taking Beijing – and leaving a trail of public spectacle in their wake. A trend of “superhero mimicry” growing popular in Beijing was recently reported on by J. David Goodman for the New York Times‘s Lede blog. These anonymous good Samaritans, adopting names like “The Incredible Shining Knight” and “Chinese Redbud Woman,” have been running wild on the streets of Beijing–and all over weibo and baidu blogs–engaging in small acts of public benevolence.

While the admittedly low-key feats of these grassroots heroes skew more towards random acts of kindness than Batman-caliber vengeance against the forces of evil, these public displays of goodwill are heartening rarities in the landscape of public meddling in China. Late last year, the news of the apparent apathy of shoppers at a Hardware Market in Foshan who passed by an injured two-year old child left bleeding on the ground exploded on the blogosphere, causing many to lament a Chinese society bereft of ethical compassion. This sense of a social dysmorphia is both exhibited and questioned in Huang Weikai‘s documentary Disorder, in which the ebb and flow of social passivity and activity unfold amid discombobulating incidents of civil disobedience, misplaced justice, and editing techniques designed to both fragment and reproduce the natural chaos of urban life.

While many may find this superhero posturing inspiring, or at least entertaining, the larger social conditions of both spectacle and prohibition can’t be ignored. Though the internet has provided a vast arena for Chinese netizens to gripe, snoop, and offer unsolicited advice and judgment for all matter of undertakings, activities of a physical nature (even those as benign as aiding the poor and under-served), activities that suggest some level of public exhibition are still strictly discouraged by the powers-that-be. As Disorder makes boggling apparent with a sophisticated pastiche of larger-than-life images, surreally-presented ironies, and an overarching awareness of documentary’s essential condition as simulacra, both the presentation and reality of China’s cities are alive with spectacle. These pantomime superheroics, complete with Marvel Comic capes and masks, are simply a deliberate participation in the role-playing that exists inherently in city streets, on the internet, in a filmmaker’s lens. In the documentary Tape, filmmaker and performer Li Ning leads his dance troupe onto the streets of Jinan, exhibiting a dramatic swirl of performance art and movement on highway medians, under overpasses, and on moving truckbeds. Li Ning’s highly experimental style as a dancer and choreographer is partially an exercise in juxtaposition, in the melding and examination of performance as organic and inorganic activity in unexpected spaces, but also suggests some of the public stage mentality that informs these Superhero deeds. Indeed, it is partially this blurring of performance and daily life that has also brought us the microblog, the flash mob, and the documentation of everyday spectacles from youtube to feature films.

In both Huang and Li’s documentary efforts, in which the filmmaker is positioned as both participant and observer of a highly dramatic landscape; in the case of these theatrical acts of Superhero altruism and the effective introduction of fantastic figures into the reality of urban life; in examining the state structure that forbids these acts of performance and documentation and is subverted by individuals employing both technology and personal conviction, there is no clear line between perception and engagement, performance and reality, spectacle and “real life.” As it appears in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle – a useful point of departure for this examination of modern urban activity – “reality emerges within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real.” In this sense, everything, from what is created actively to what is experienced passively to various modes of documenting these events, is connected in the sphere of the spectacle.


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