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Review: <i>Fangshan Church</i>, an Intimate Look at Christianity in China

By Maya E. Rudolph

Xu Xin’s 2005 documentary Fangshan Church, an unassuming account of a Christian congregation in a somber agricultural village in northern Jiangsu Province, examines not the face of God, but those of devout followers. Xu’s unobtrusive portrait of Fangshan Church and its pious “disciples” opens with a series of plainly framed black and white close ups: elderly congregants facing a pulpit, eyes peering forward from seemingly unaffected, prodigiously wrinkled faces. This opening montage of faces committed in prayer is imbued with a certain reverence, a sense of the sacred articulated also in the hymns and hushed prayers delivering a devotional murmur to an otherwise stark and quiet landscape.

Fangshan Church, the narrative informs through limited title cards and scant talking-head interviews, was built thanks to the generosity of the community family members living in relative religious and economic deliverance in Taiwan. The church structure, a narrow building equipped with a modest cross that stands out amid the rough-hewn terrain of Fangshan village, caters to a Sunday congregation of nearly 900 people. Both the church and its congregants exist humbly, resolutely within Xu’s objective lens, offering a portrait of Christian dogma without evangelical fervor, daily life without much earthly expectation. A Sunday sermon catering to a packed house is exhibited with a casual tracking shot up the aisle, then follows a prophetic-seeming exodus of people and bicycles from the church up a narrow path back towards their homes. Finally, casting his camera upon the emptied church, Xu tilts the camera slowly upwards – what’s up there besides a vaulted ceiling?

The discussion of the church’s somewhat tenuous relationship with the Communist Party is mentioned only briefly, despite the local government’s past attempts to close the church. “We’re not an anti-government organization,” one congregant insists, while another adds that their interest is not in proselytizing, but “singing and dancing.” Indeed, singing is a constant presence in the church and community at large, seemingly the congregants’ preferred mode of communication between themselves and to God, and a departure from lives in a dusty town that appears dense with hardships. Yet for all of Xu’s straightforward portraiture and attention to the subtle joys and habits of these followers – a seeming attempt to personify such abstractions as faith and Godly grace – the narrative ultimately divulges the squabbles, the doubt, and the profane discussions of money, contradicting ideologies, and clerical power that plague every religious community.

Though Xu follows few of the congregants outside of their worship in the church and the occasional home prayer meeting, among the more closely watched congregants are Hu Shengqiang and his wife. Steadfast church members who eat, work, and cohabitate in tranquil simplicity, the man and wife pass time reading aloud to one another from the book of Genesis, stories of Eden. In the film’s final moments, it becomes clear that Shengqiang has passed away and his wife, grieved to hysterical tears, sings a song at his graveside. This song is no hymn in the traditional sense and there is no mention made of God or the Church in these late moments, just an overwhelming sense of devotion.

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