Film Review: The Land of Many Palaces

Ogre.  Gross. August. A few years ago, Inner Mongolia was one of the poorest areas of China. This was before they found coal, and before the local authorities spent the vast wealth on an enormous city, Orgos, with skyscrapers, museums, and sports stadiums. It had everything, except people. So, they started moving the local subsistence farmers in.

 

This is a bleak but powerful documentary about what could be the largest forced migration of people in the world. You can almost feel the cold air coming across the steppes, even the sun seems cooler here than anywhere else. Normally, when you think of a Chinese city you think of bright lights and lots of people; here, the loneliness is tangible.

 

And yet, this is not an exercise in cruelty. The apartments are quite large, even the smaller ones are just over 100 square meters and well-equipped. The architecture inoffensive – think edge of Vancouver – where the farmers old homes were very basic. There is a welcome committee; young adults, often the children of the farmers themselves, stand with megaphones educating elderly farmers on city life and how to be civilised. Health insurance is sold by showing a film of a pedestrian being knocked over by an out-of-control car. But, the worst thing is that there is absolutely nothing for most of these ‘ex- farmers’ to do, besides to watch television, play cards, and try and make their meagre allowance cover expensive food they used to provide for themselves.

 

Very probably the same elderly farmers enduring this know-it-all-youth were when they were young, back in the sixties and seventies charged with re-educating intellectuals sent to the countryside during the cultural revolution. This cannot be much consolation, but it does make it hard to complain. And no one really does, openly, anyway.  When one farmer has the sense to explore employment opportunities before giving up his farm, and decides to stay put, the audience gave a silent cheer.

 

Curt Tofteland, the founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars, said that some men are more free in jail than outside, because, they had something to contribute.  These elderly farmers banged up in their gilded cages, ostensibly free, are prisoners for life. The Chinese government intend to relocate an estimated 250 million farmers to new cities in the next 15-20 years. It is a depressing thought.

 

At Q between 22 May to 29 May

At Roxy between 4 June to 12 June

 

[header cred]

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