Wukan and its Uprising - So near yet so far

‘Wukan – The Flames of Democracy’ by husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Lynn Lee and James Leong, did not get screened at the recent Chinese Film Festival in Singapore because MDA had not given it a rating nor made a decision on whether to pass it for screening or not. The authorities should see good reason in screening it in Singapore. Don’t be fooled by the film’s title. This film actually takes an ironic look at democracy in a village in China and gives no one the last laugh at political change.

Wukan, defies historical records among village uprisings in China in being a village that succeeded in overthrowing party officials and establishing a democratic electoral process and local governing committee. Apparently, there have been many village uprisings, mostly against corrupt government officials but this Wukan example was a beacon of hope for people power. Like in their previous documentaries, Lynn and James planted themselves deep into the core of the matter and capture, at close-range, the teething struggles of the newly-elected committee to deliver on their promises and mission.

The documentary begins with revolutionary fervour, flashing footages of the angsty uprising, the hope-laden the electoral process, and the newly-elected team, all excited to turn a new page in the history of this village. The euphora soon subsides and the committee, made up of many novices, except for the chief, Lin Zhuluan (picture below, left), who is a retired Communist party cadre, begins to face the mess they inherited from the overthrown corrupt officials.  Among a multitude of problems like water supply, amenities, returning land to the villagers was unanimously the mother of all issues. But one gets a stinking feeling that it was a long arduous journey stricken with thorns and red tape to reclaim the land.

Through a worm’s eye view of how the committee works, we stay at close lengths to the daily trials and tribulations of the working committee, and in particular, Zhang Jian Cheng, one of the committee members who is the central voice of the documentary. It is through him, we uncover the unembellished workings of one of the world’s smallest democracies. One scene in particular, epitomizes the film’s attempt to create a specimen out of Wukan’s democratization – two young girls were asked to use the loudhailer to rally the villagers for a screening of a film to commemorate the late revolutionary Xue Jinbo whose death prompted the Wukan uprising. Novices at using the loudhailer, they fumble in front of the camera, mirroring the raw, honest approach the filmmakers take towards their subjects in the entire documentary.

Almost like a fictional narrative, trouble brews not long after the committee has settled into the rhythm of things. Through an audio detection device, they learn about a clandestine attempt by a pro-Communist party group to undermine them. We also bear witness to the growing discontentment of the villagers who are complaining about being unable to get back their land. What is interesting on hindsight is the balancing act the filmmakers play between being an unbiased ‘recorder’ of the events that took place and a storyteller, slipping the events into some kind of a cause-effect, chain-of-events narrative arc. While the documentary is as in-your-face-raw as almost physically being next to its subjects, it is also deliberate in its structure and narrative build up and its sometimes, over-use of music to guide the mood and tempo of the film. However, one cannot imagine how they could hv been deliberate and scripted in their shooting process when nobody had a clue on how the supposed ‘democracy’ was going to work and trouble was going to unfold. But therein lies the art of ‘selection’ – selecting who relates, what to probe them on and capturing the best sound bites and moments within the confines of ‘real-time trouble’, something which the filmmakers Lynn and James seem to have full control of.

With the rising discontentment against the newly and democratically-elected committee, the documentary begins to unfold like one of those moral-laden fables. It is as if it is trying to tell you there is no there is no utopia and for every new step forward, something has to give. The movie has yet to be screened in Singapore and it is certainly interesting to see the position the censors take on this film. Will they appreciate the film’s double-edged message on democracy or will they get into a hypochondriac state about social order and fear that the spirit of uprising may taint the minds of Singaporeans here?

In an almost too circular fashion, the film which starts with only a glimpse of the Wukan uprising goes back to where it came from, another uprising. The villagers decide to blockade a portion of a road joined to land plots that rightfully belong to them, but the village committee is facing challenges in retrieving the land. With one or two leading voices igniting the ‘revolutionary fervour’ of the rest, they take to the streets chanting slogans all over again. Suddenly, the Singaporean viewer in me cannot help but feel like this was a flesh and blood version of ‘The Real Singapore’, inciting reflections about Singapore’s current online pandemonium about bread and butter issues.

At this point, staying glued to the documentary was like waiting for the last word on democracy, which I suspect was what the filmmakers did not want to offer, to avoid an absolutist view on such an issue. Even though throughout the film, there were deliberate build-ups, narrative steering from the way the scenes were edited and music that coerced you into a certain direction of thought. In the end somehow, the natural course of things paved an obvious ending point for the film. As the uprising gets louder and things get out of hand, the head of the committee shouts across to the cameraman to stop shooting. The simple reflex puts a full stop to a cycle of discontent and more importantly re-orientates the viewer, reminding that in this outbreak of trouble, we are so near yet so far.

So I think…..MDA is not going to cut it up too much.

Review by Jeremy Sing

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