Release year: 2007
Run time: 117 mins
Film type: Documentary
Over a million people are being relocated from the proposed flood basin of China’s massive Three Gorges Dam, now under construction. At least one peasant woman dared refuse to move. Director Feng Yan follows ten years in the life of Zhang Bingai, a woman like millions of Chinese farmers, who doggedly struggles with her fate and patiently tests her luck, all while caught in the throes of the times.
Bingai, her husband and two children harvest oranges on the banks of the Yangtze River. Their misfortune is to be located in the flood basin of the Three Gorges Dam Project. The government orders her to relocate, and offers miserable compensation. Bingai refuses to move on such terms, and thus begins a decade long struggle with local officials and the land.
Feng Yan spent ten years filming Bingai, and out of this material has crafted one of the most moving and fascinating documentaries to come out of China in years. Bingai’s charisma and resilience shine through as we see her in various confrontations with stolid local bureaucrats, just “doing their jobs.” The human cost of China’s unprecedented re-engineering of its environment is the main subject here. But the most remarkable revelations come from Bingai’s intimate life: the film is at its heart an ode to love that slowly grows between husband and wife.
Utterly without condescension, the film gives not only a feel for the rhythms of their daily routines, but also opens up the detailed texture of their emotional lives: it’s a remarkable portrait of a world that for most of us exists only in the abstract. (From the catalogue of Vancouver International Film Festival 2007)
Born in 1962, Feng Yan is a Chinese independent documentary filmmaker. She was raised in Tianjin and attended Tianjin Foreign Studies University, graduating in 1984 with a degree in Japanese literature. Yan moved to Japan in 1988 where she studied for a PhD in economics at Kyoto University. In 1992, she worked as a translator in Tokyo where she had the opportunity to learn about documentary film. Most notably, her film Bing’ai, which documents the struggles of a Chinese woman farmer against relocation to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, won the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize at the 2007 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. The film also won first prize at the 2008 Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival in Spain.
My initial motivation was simple. In 1992, as an environmental economist based in Japan, I heard that the Chinese government had announced that the world’s largest dam was to be built on one of China’s main rivers, and 1.13 million people would be dislocated. The project was given a go-ahead, despite loud criticism from environmental and cultural circles?the plan was not ecologically sound, and important historical relics would be submerged under water forever. It was obvious that the government wanted the nation to surge ahead, prioritizing economic progress over all sacrifices.
In 1994, I went on my first research trip to the area, anticipating that I would find voices of opposition. The scale of the relocation, over one million people, was huge. The majority of the displaced would be farmers. They, I thought, would surely defy government orders to leave their cherished land and trade. Heated debates over compensation would no doubt rock Chinese society, I imagined.
However, I was surprised to find the mood in the proposed dam site rather upbeat. Though many people complained that the compensation money was not enough, nobody seemed to voice opposition about leaving their fields. The locals claimed, “If you want to make some quick money, you should move to the dam site.”
Somewhat disappointed by what I perceived as “spinelessness” on the part of Chinese farmers, I went from village to village to survey the area. There I discovered how the 50 years’ debate over the dam project had impoverished the local communities. The government had limited all investment and economic infrastructure building to a minimum, as no one knew when the region would end up at the bottom of a reservoir. In bitter contrast to the coastal areas of China, which flourish under the recent policy of Reform and Opening-up, the people here were deprived of any resources or technology to better their lives. Under such conditions, relocation seemed to offer a ray of hope for the future.
It was then I decided that my documentary would focus, not on a discussion of environmental or human rights issues, but on the realities of the farmers’ everyday lives. I felt it was important that I put aside preconceptions and textbook judgments of an economist, and face my “subjects” as individual human beings.
And so I met the women who became my main characters for what may eventually become a series. An old woman who leaves the home she shared with her husband for 50 years and lives on picking trash, proudly proclaims, “It’s thanks to Chairman Mao that I’m alive today. I have learned from his teachings of self-reliance, and put them into practice.” A young woman dreaming of the city life follows the construction sites and its workers with her beauty salon. The wife of a self-taught doctor loses everything after she abandons her rural registry and moves to town. A determined woman decides to remain in the deserted village, bearing the history of her ancestors and much personal pain. This became the story of Zhang Bingai.
Of all the subjects I’ve had the chance to film, Zhang Bingai took the longest to warm up to me and reveal herself. We’d known each other for eight years before she confided to me the story of her life. When water is about to rise up and submerge your house, and you are burdened by the huge pressure to make final decisions, all the memories of your rough life come raging out like floodwaters breaking through a dam. I was caught in this riptide and I drifted, unable to move at all, enveloped in a story I felt as though I had heard before, and I even shuddered for an instant with the feeling that I had touched her soul. As Bingai talked unhesitatingly to the camera in between her busy farm work and heated negotiations with officials, I understood how all her past choices and actions were based on her own life experiences. As I was editing Bingai, I came to realize that parallels emerged between her history and current situation entirely in the order in which the scenes were shot. A life’s richness and complexity goes far beyond our imagination. This coincidence made me lament over my silly and unnecessary efforts to try to “compose” the film.
- 2007 Most Promising Asian Filmmaker (Ogawa Shinsuke Prize), Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival