The Chinese Mayor
The northern Chinese city of Datong is primarily known in the West as a victim of its coal-mining success. However, up until the Ming period, it was one of China’s most important historical cities before it was overtaken by Beijing, 300 kilometres to the east. The fact that a UNESCO expert flippantly referred to it as the “ugliest city in the world” lit a fire under the ambitious mayor Geng Yanbo. In 2008, he kicked off a multi-billion-dollar renovation project that would transform the desolate mining town into a destination for history-conscious cultural tourists. 500,000 people – around a third of the population – were displaced by the construction of a pseudo-historical town centre in Ming style.
Filmmaker Zhou Hao won the power-conscious mayor’s approval to accompany him throughout the implementation of the megalomaniacal project. But Zhou did not simply fulfil the politician’s quest to be portrayed as a dynamic macher. Rather, the director manages a visually powerful film of great emotional power. It offers enthralling insight into the everyday life and the soul of a vast land, replete with its moral dilemmas and fomenting conflicts between the power of the state and its citizens.
In a haunting rhythm comprised of super-wide shots of historicist façade architecture, disturbing images of demolition and eviction, and intimate moments of the restless visionary Geng, Zhou breaks the massive project down to a human scale. Urban planning turns out to be the stress test of the rule of law, as demanded by citizens.
Zhou Hao was born in 1968 in China. He previously worked as a photographer for the Chinese news agency Xinhua and the weekly Southern Weekend. He started making documentary films in 2001 and has won several awards. His films include Houjie Township (2003), Senior Year (2005), Using (2007), The Transition Period (2009) and Cotton (2010). The Chinese Mayor premiered at the Sundance Film festival in 2015 and received the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for “Unparalleled Access”.