A would-be Gorbachev in the People’s Republic: “The Chinese Mayor”

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – The Chinese Mayor is a riveting, insider’s look at Geng Yanbo, the reform-minded mayor of Datong, one of the People’s Republic of China’s most polluted cities. With a Frederick Wiseman-type fly-on-the-wall technique, Hao Zhou’s probing camera follows the crusading administrator from excursions to meet the masses at demolition sites, at behind-closed-door meetings with businessmen and Communist Party officials and more, as the energetic Geng tries to transform Datong into a cultural mecca. The film screened at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.

Geng is a Communist Party member up against the system, who zooms around Datong in a chauffeured sedan as he frenetically tries to speed up and improve work on restoring ancient city walls and demolishing nearby ramshackle homes. According to Geng, inhabitants of the houses near the walls are there illegally, and he tries to smooth their transitions by finding them new housing in just-built high-rise apartment houses.

Zhou’s discreet lens creates a candid picture of this man on the go and what the mayor’s up against. At one point Geng comments that he has completely forgotten about the Chinese filmmaker and his camera that have been trailing him on his peregrinations around Datong.

The film provides a powerful, thought-provoking look at what’s going on in today’s PRC. How socialist is China today? How capitalist is it? Or is 2015’s China somewhere in between the two? The Chinese Mayor also investigates how democratic, dictatorial and/or bureaucratic the PRC currently is.

A small bust of Chairman Mao sits on the dashboard of Geng’s vehicle; the camera sometimes lingers on it, as if asking: What would the Great Helmsman make of China today, almost 40 years after his death? And what of Geng himself? Is he a selfless public servant? (In a recurring quasi gag, his hapless wife frequently calls or shows up unannounced to hector him, complaining about his lack of sleep as the mid-fifties man on a mission is constantly on the go.) Or is Geng a “Geng-his Khan,” himself a petty tyrant, ordering shack dwellers away from the demolition sites so restoration work on his cherished cultural projects can continue? One of the most interesting things about The Chinese Mayor is how the masses respond to this man with a mission.

To this viewer Geng appears to be a Chinese version of the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev, seeking to revive a calcified, bureaucratic system out of touch with the masses by trying to remain true to a vision of socialism. Will he be more successful than Gorby was? Will Geng’s grand schemes, his iteration of “perestroika,” succeed – or will the entrenched inertia of the privileged, tightly controlled bureaucracy prevail? Are the bureaucrats just paper tigers? Can the system be reformed – or does political power still come out of the barrel of a gun? To find out you’ll have to check out for yourself this compelling, well made, watchable documentary – one of the most insightful, captivating chronicles of the Chinese Revolution since Mao’s Little Red Book.  

For more info on Mammoth Lakes Film Festival see: http://www.mammothlakesfilmfestival.com/.

Photo: KBIA.org


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.