Review: <i>China Concerto</i> a profound pastiche of spectacle
Join the Party: Ethiopians sing patriotic Communist Chinese anthems atop a fake Great Wall in “China Concerto”
By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph
“For the spectacle is both the meaning and the agenda of our particular socio-economic formation. It is the historical moment in which we are caught. “–Guy DeBord, The Society of the Spectacle
The concept of the spectacle is an impatient one. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy DeBord’s 1967 work of Marxist critical theory that underwrites every cut of Bo Wang’s densely compelling documentary China Concerto, DeBord writes of a spectacle that exists as “a social relation between people that is mediated by images.” The year is 2010. The city is Chongqing, China. The film is a documentary of both found and original images. The spectacle is perpetual and demands our immediate attention.
China Concerto is a concise, complex film that articulates the politics of nationalism, political mythology, and the irreconcilably bizarre reality of contemporary China through layers of language, image, and imagination. Wang’s film, which made its North American premiere at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight in February 2013, creates a montage of original footage shot in his hometown of Chongqing, as well as footage culled from films, archival CCTV broadcasts, and even Michelangelo Antonioni’s legendary 1972 China documentary Chung Kuo, Cina.
At first, Wang’s details of what appears to be an anonymous Chinese city—a model of Mount Rushmore in a city park, a group of Ethiopians singing Communist propaganda songs on a miniature Great Wall replica—seem garden-variety wacky, the kind of out-of-place curiosities that one simply finds in today’s Chinese cities. Moving through these dazzlingly weird images, the audience is introduced to a female narrator whose ambiguously European accent is rounded and calm, admitting of the pictures that unfold: “there are images I don’t know how to explain.” Her quasi-epistolary narration, philosophical and apt to reference a third party whose letters she has received (“he wrote…”) are a direct homage to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and a fitting tribute to Marker’s graceful, piercing marriage of sight and the sound of a sole voice. Rather than feel derivative, the polyglot voices in China Concerto—Marker, Antonioni, DeBord, Wang himself as a Chongqing native living in the United States—disrupt the film from its geographic context, affixing a unyielding transnational gaze that stares right back at the audience.
While China Concerto makes only scarce and subtle reference to the origins of Red Chongqing, it’s impossible to watch the film without being dumbfounded that this—there truly is no other word for it—spectacle is the doing of one of China’s most controversial figures: Bo Xilai. Bo, who was the top CCP official in Chongqing until his epic undoing in one of China’s most outrageous political scandals in recent memory, masterminded and maintained the campaign to bring a Cultural Revolution-era sensibility back to China until being shamed in an elaborate corruption scandal that broke in February 2011. The Maoist-era propaganda songs that play over dancers swaying slowly through grainy air in a plaza outside a shopping mall are eerie and disconcerting. China Concerto is a kind of time capsule of the enormous symbolic contradictions of a man whose desire to regress the past thirty years of Chinese socioeconomic reform led to one of the great political meltdowns of the past decade. Through questions and boldly strategic cutting, Wang considers this inexplicable ideology—the ultimate imbroglio of personal and political identity within collectivism, of a place where even truth and propaganda become indistinguishably corrupted.
Throughout the film, the discussions of various elements of life in Chongqing strike and shift so naturally as to suggest a progression of thought; a flow well suited to the narrator’s fairly colloquial stream of consciousness. The film takes on an essay structure, but it’s a poetic essay that raises many theses and then allows them to hang heavy in the air alongside grainy TV broadcasts of holiday concerts, pathetic moments of designed recreation at shooting galleries and performances, and citizen dancers who drop their posture the moment the song ends. Ultimately, what China Concerto threads together is a profoundly sad, deeply absorbing spectacle all its own.
In one particularly evocative moment, Wang cuts between party officials watching a performance by highly groomed school children. The image is chilling not only because its contrast between a sea of pall-faced politicians (including a quick shot of Bo Xilai) with dancing, singing kids brings to mind the horror of the 1994 incident in Karamay, Xinjiang (immortalized in Xu Xin’s powerful 2010 documentary), but because the images make irrefutable what the narrator declares. “I began to understand that it was not about the quality of the performance, but the transfer of power from spectacle to bureaucracy. Nothing is outside the binary system.”
In creating a profound pastiche of spectacles, China Concerto circles back to a montage that seems to eliminate this binary between the audience watching the film and the people on screen. In the end, we’re all seeing the same images.