Open City Docs Fest: Shattered – a portrait of urban and rural Chinese life
It is strange to feel affection towards an illegal brothel owner with a violent past. But in Xu Tong’s new documentary film Shattered, which premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival this year, you find yourself feeling slightly empathetic towards Tang Caifeng, the alarmingly brutal protagonist, as she interacts with her elderly father.
Depicted a year after Fortune Teller, Xu Tong’s sequel continues Caifeng’s story as she visits her father, affectionately named Old Man Tang, in the North East region. Despite his 80 years, Tang’s memory is excellent, and he recounts stories from his days as a railway worker and his conflicting relationship with the Communist Party.
The two protagonists represent a microcosm of Chinese society, through the contrast between rural and urban life, and of two generations. Tang’s memories of his railway worker days are greatly contrasted by Caifeng’s brutal business mind; sharp-tongued, honest-speaking, you’ll find your blood chilling slightly as she calmly describes how she had an informant of her illegal mine beaten to death.
Tang’s memories and Caifeng’s sub-commentary also give the audience an insight into Mao’s China and the population’s opinion of their ruling party. Despite having left the Communist Party in 1958 after being dismissed from work whilst tending to his ill daughter, he has portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels, Mao and Lin Biao lining the walls of his humble house – key Communist figures, conflicting with his seemingly sour memories of the Party. Caifeng on the other hand, jokingly describes how she’d request a bribe from passengers if she were the director of the train, and candidly laughs: “I’m following the spirit of the Communist Party.”
Xu Tong, however, unconsciously portrays rural life as slightly backward. In a particularly gruesome scene involving the slaughtering of a pig and vulgar arguments within the family, Tong only adds to the stereotype of peasant mentality and the stillness of time, within rural China, fuelling bigoted Western ideas of a barbaric nation.
With Tong displaying numerous visits from his children, the title of the film does seem appropriate. Shattered embodies a breaking family, with Tang’s children showing resentment and ill-will towards their father, though it is unclear whether they are projecting the blame for their misery from their own unsatisfied lives onto their father.
Past and present China interlink in this documentary, and is an interesting watch for the slightly edgier viewer.
For further information on Open City Docs Film Festival, click here.