Work in Progress

in 47th Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Dennis Lim

As the nature of work changes, it’s not just jobs that are lost but entire ways of life. Nowhere is this more evident than present-day China, where late socialism has mutated into a rapacious breed of capitalism, and where the ever-growing rank of independent filmmakers, working in fiction, documentary, or a productive combination thereof, are treating their rapidly evolving country like a ready-made film set. Survival Song (Xiao Li Zi, 2008), the second film by Yu Guangyi and the winner of the FIPRESCI prize at the 2009 Viennale, is a chronicle of hard work, albeit one that’s worlds away from the proletarian fantasies of old-fashioned socialist realism. A self-taught filmmaker (he studied printmaking), Yu has been making video documentaries in the remote northeastern region where he was born and raised. As China asserts its centrality in the world economy, he has ventured to its furthest margins to investigate the fallout.          

For his first film, Timber Gang (2006), a record of a dying tradition, Yu accompanied a group of lumberjacks on a grueling trek into the mountains for a winter of work: cutting down trees and rolling them down through the snow. In Survival Song, the construction of a new reservoir causes Han, a forest ranger, to lose both his home and his job. He and his wife relocate to an abandoned logging camp, miles away from the nearest inhabitants, and survive by hunting and trapping (or, as the authorities think of it, poaching). It seems like an all-too-familiar story: a casualty of the new China, left behind in the rush to modernization. But the particulars of the Hans’ situation—thanks in part to the couple’s odd-job man, an unforgettable figure who gradually takes on a bigger role in the film—are startling, as is Yu’s directness and sensitivity in capturing the plight of his subjects.            

The daily rituals and larger political meaning of work are also at the heart of Agrarian Utopia (Sawan Baan Na, 2009), by the Thai filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad. The son of farmers, Uruphong has described agriculture as one of mankind’s “most noble professions.” Much like Yu, he has found his calling by returning home. After studying film and working as an editor in Bangkok, he left the city to make his first feature, Stories From the North (2006), a series of poetic vignettes, all shot in the rural north, where he grew up. Agrarian Utopia is set in the same region, among a community of farmers struggling with debt and using traditional methods on their rice paddy. Filmed against open fields and skies, attuned to the rhythms of work (and of play—children are prominent), the film has a serene, meditative beauty. But there is more than a hint of irony in the title: Agrarian Utopia maintains a clear-eyed view of the bigger picture, making it plain that the economic cards are stacked against these farmers, and that the political system (we glimpse stumping candidates and street protests) will offer no solutions.            

The film plays like a documentary, but this utopia is staged. It was shot on a rented plot, and the farmers are nonprofessional “actors,” who lived as farmers during the production, ploughing the land and harvesting the crops. It’s no surprise that difficulties of classification tend to emerge when films focus on something as mundane, intimate, and all-consuming as day-to-day work. This kind of evocative blurring is evident too in The Anchorage (2009), a promising first feature by American CalArts alumnus C.W. Winter and Swedish photographer Anders Edström, and, as it happens, yet another Viennale entry that explores the notion of man in nature. The film observes a few days in the life of a woman on an island in the Stockholm archipelago. Beyond plotless, The Anchorage is practically devoid of incident: the woman walks in the woods and swims in the sea; she fishes and cooks; her daughter and a friend visit; a hunter passes by; the weather changes. But the pleasures—and the meaning—of this spare, trancelike film are in contemplation, in observing the moment-to-moment experience of a simple, solitary life, and the work that goes into it.            

Dennis Lim