“This is a personal film set in a political landscape. Twenty-first century China is the character, and Beijing is the battlefield of a fast changing history,” says director Xiaolu Guo of The Concrete Revolution, in her director’s statement that is part of the DVD’s special features. The documentary’s intimate female voice-over pays homage to the personal essay film style of Chris Marker, whom Guo also mentions in her statement. Indeed, the film promises much more than a feminine narrative about personal displacement. It attempts to tell a grand story of national and political importance—of migrant construction workers and their shadowy lives in a grand new Beijing.
The climax of this poetic anti-narrative essay-documentary is when one of the construction workers cries on camera. The story behind the emotional display in front of the “candid camera” is an old one: a poor peasant from the countryside comes to the nation’s capital to work as a manual laborer (for the 2008 Beijing Olympics) in order to support his wife and two children. He cries, not because he shares the interviewer’s deep concern for the old buildings, nor for her philosophical musings on the irony latent in any “developmental state of mind”—he cries because the construction company has not paid him for months, and he needs the money to buy seeds for the coming spring. “You are nothing without money in this society,” said the man who cries on camera.
Another male figure that dominates the screen is the young and handsome intermediary between the big construction company and the construction workers. When asked for his home province, he answers Jiangxi, while director Guo immediately associates it with the Jiangxi Soviet, the communist base active in the 1930s in the same province. Guo’s politicization of the rather apolitical worldview of her interviewees intensifies the humanistic concern of the film, and somewhat shifts its humanistic concern away from the more profane concerns of the migrant workers themselves.
Through her poetic storytelling, just as in her novel Village of Stone (Random House, 2004), Guo makes possible an impressively personal portrayal of a national problem. But where she succeeds, she also fails. The human touch seems so personal that it feels arbitrary, so poetic that it feels not concrete. Viewers who hunger for “a bigger picture” would wonder how much time she spent in Beijing, and how long it took to research and film this ambitious project.
How concrete is The Concrete Revolution? How concrete is the narrative and its representation of the construction workers? Why the rather short-sighted constant references to Mao and the Communist Revolution? One Scandinavian restoration architect who viewed the film is puzzled by the focus on destroying the old to develop the new. Aggressive urban reconstruction is nothing new in the European and global context and is certainly not a creation of the Chinese Communist Party. A focus on the 2008 Olympics might be more effective, but that focus soon is replaced by the economic exploration of migrant workers by the big construction companies, and that again is quickly replaced by the youthful uncertainty reflected through the young and handsome intermediary with whom the director quickly identified. In the end, one wonders, who is the character in this documentary— “Twenty-first century China” as Director Guo claims, or the director herself?
That being said, Director Guo should be commended for her insightful and poetic portrayal of an important social phenomenon concerning migrant laborers and their fate in contemporary China. The intimate human touch of this documentary provides a moving representation of Chinese reality. It will be a welcome addition to the university classroom and to the general public to improve our understanding about contemporary China, and especially about peasant migrant laborers and urban reconstruction issues. A guidebook is available on the Choices, Inc. Web site at https://www.choicesvideo.net/guidebooks/ Concreteguidebook.pdf.