`Boomtown Beijing' by Tan Siok Siok


I watched Boomtown Beijing not emerging wiser from an understanding of Beijing people's Olympic fervour. I wondered why. But Siok Siok provided the answer later in the Q & A when she shared more about this rather unique documentary.


Boomtown Beijing started off as a video essay on how Beijing is prepping itself up for the Olympics. I can imagine if you were stationed in Beijing for a period, you can't really run away from being bombarded by slogans, advertisements and campaigns hyping up the Olympics. I would imagine a video essay would take a less expositional and interogative approach towards storytelling. But according to Siok Siok, circumstances have influenced her to also zoom in for more in-depth stories on a few characters. But from the kaleidoscopic (or rather broad-based) visual treatment, I felt the video essay tone was still pretty much there.


The main characters featured were a very socially-conscious and civic-minded taxi driver, a boy who plays the Olympic angel in school activities, an old man who upkeeps the Chinese tradition of twirling the big ribbon and a partially blind athlete who still thinks he stands a chance for national glory. The common thread across them is of course Olympic fervour. Some of the more comic manifestations include the taxi driver doing his skipping routines in shirt and pants to keep fit in the open walkway.


Boomtown Beijing approaches its subjects very factually. It neither questions their zeal nor attempts to read in between the lines of what is being shared. I wondered if the sensibility in all this fervour can only be understood if you live in their midst, or if Siok Siok aimed to prove that Beijingers are not always smogged in oppression like how the foreign media likes to portray them. For me, I would rationalise it as a cross breed of confucianism and capitalism.

Panorama Crosstalk #8

J : Do you know there a few things that I learnt during the Q & A about the approach to BT Beijing, that really changed my perception of the documentary?
S : How's that so?
J : Siok Siok clarified the following : It started as a video essay. Its subjects were found by students.
S : Yup, it's an elaborate school project, as she put it.
J : Exactly, the documentary felt very `classroom', as in the issues were not probed deep enough and there was little sense of conflict.
S : I guess that comes with the focus on 3 totally distinct subjects, each with their own lives. (pause) I thought it had its moments with some candid moments caught on screen. (pause) I also felt that each had dreams which were somehow beyond their grasp, but they still go for it anyway, keeping to the Olympic spirit of pushing oneself to the limit. (beat) And probably beyond.
J : Agree.
S : Perhaps Siok Siok would attempt a follow up, or include in a DVD release as an extra short film, on what happened to those 3 subjects nearer to the Olympic Games in Aug, or after.
J : Mmm. that would be interesting! (long pause) Did you feel moved by their struggle and aspirations or did you feel more incomprehensibility at the extent of their fervour?
S : I was quite ambivalent actually
J : Interesting . Why?
S : At times difficult to comprehend why they would go to that extent, or whether the Olympics truly aspire them to dream, or issit just because it's the "Olympics". Maybe we'll get to understand this a bit more when we host the Youth Olympics in 2010. (beat) Someone better get a camera ready lol!
J : True true. In Beijing, Tan Siok Siok. In Singapore, Tan Pin Pin. Haha!
S : Haha.
J : Honestly, I felt something wrong about their fervour, very bordering on a state of being brainwashed. Did you feel it?
S : Haha, actually no. Why do you think so?
J : Maybe it is the cab driver (being the film opener and closer) who epitomised it the most.
S : I really was surprised that they, as cab drivers, bother to conserve energy and do their bit part to help their environment.
J : Yes!
S : You can safely bet your last dollar what they did, will not be done here lol.
J : No need to think, it WILL NOT be done here. (pause) Back to the cabbie, he sounded like a representative or spokesman for the China tourism board, echoing campaign-like messages, and skipping in his office wear to keep fit in the spirit of the Olympics!
S : Lol. Well, I'm sure we can get the equivalent over here if STB looks hard enough
J : Agree. Our taxi drivers are one of the most vocal in the world. They talk to many strangers.
S : But not sure if they would like to express their feelings ON camera.
J : Mmm….which brings me to another point - those China interviewees are so forthcoming!
S : Hard to imagine eh? One would think they'd be more reserved.
J : But you know, I learnt from Siok Siok's Q & A, a docu's content is who you choose and how you manipulate.
S : Yes, cos I think it's usually crafted during the editing phase. But still, u gotta have enough interesting material in order to craft something out of it.
J : I learnt somewhere that you would rather save a film at the script stage than the editing stage.
S : Does it apply to a documentary?
J : Well, at the Wed night session Q & A which you did not attend, Siok Siok mentioned that she specifically asked her students if they could find a crippled athlete.
S : Really!
J : Yes.

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