Film Review: 煤市街

A look at Meishi Jie

Alice Dawkins

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia, Australia

23 March 2015

Alice Dawkins took some time out from Chinese class to enjoy a recent event at the Australian Centre for China in the World (CIW).

One of the best deals around on campus for film-going students are CIW’s regular, and free-of-charge, screenings. Curated by CIW staff into particular themes, I was lucky to catch the last installment of the Survival Politics film offerings, Meishi Jie (煤市街), or Meishi Street (2006).

The film has done the rounds at various independent film events around the world to positive responses. Indeed, the director, Ou Ning, who joined us for the screening and the Q&A session, is regularly lauded as one of the most influential artists of his generation. The truth is, Ou Ning did little of the film-making. His genius lies in the editing process (which is minimal), and the selection of a Beijing resident, Zhang Jinli (张金利), to film the story unfolding around him, of urban demolition and reconstruction in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics.

Zhang Jinli is no Zhang Yimou. He’s just a guy with a restaurant who’s less than impressed about the Beijing demolition company’s path of destruction in his local street. In a darkly funny play on words, meishi written in other characters is of course the colloquial phrase “no worries, no problem”, something uttered at length throughout the dialogue. Yet the truth is problems abound with each turn of the slowly rolling plot.

With each spike of drama, whether one of Jinli’s public protests, or a visit from the authorities, or a colourful community gathering, there’s almost always an unexpected scene of unadulterated spontaneity. Jinli practicing martial arts in the park, Jinli passionately singing to the camera on his rooftop, Jinli doing gymnastics at his front door. While not particularly elegant, these moments of familiarity shared between Jinli and the viewer inject the film with a sense of pathos that could have been lost in the bureaucratic farce of the story.

Ou Ning commented at the screening of the empowering quality of video footage, particularly in the context of citizen journalism. Zhang Jinli’s gradual understanding of how to use his device equips him with a weapon, which turns in his own quirky way upon the authorities. It provides for an intimate tool artistically, as the viewer is squeezed into the corner of a crowded room and observes the animated interchange between Jinli and those in charge of the street’s renovation. At the time Meishi Jie was filmed, the relatively early years of video-based citizen journalism in China, curiously the camera is allowed to remain as witness to most of Jinli’s interactions with the various emanations of the state. A decade later, Ou Ning mentions that the Chinese authorities would now never allow the camera to join these types of conversations.

There’s something a little contrived about how modern China is portrayed for an international audience. Deeper socio-cultural meanings are injected with craft into the lives of the protagonists; symbolism abounds in each shot and mise-en-scene. The refreshing part of Meishi Jie is it’s everything that the exquisitely curated masterpieces of the Fifth Generation aren’t; shaky, grainy, blurry, and organically unbalanced as the plot develops to an inevitable, but nonetheless triste, denouement.

Since Meishi Jie, Ou Ning’s work in artistic projects and social engineering has been prolific. For a rare insight into his creative process, check out Moleskine’s video compilation of one of his journals:

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