High Tech, Low Life follows two Chinese bloggers of different generations to not only expose the state of Internet censorship in China and the lengths netizens must go to in order to get honest reporting through that country’s Great Firewall, but also the bloggers’ different values and motivations, and how blogging affects their lives. As far as its subject matter goes, the doc only scratches the surfaces, only reaffirming the simple idea that Internet censorship in China is prevalent and unfair. To those who’ve read news coverage on grass mud horses or China’s preparation for the Beijing Olympics, the film might feel both familiar and, however generally relevant, dated. However, thanks to the generational contrasts of the doc’s two defiant protags, 27-year-old Zhou Shuguang and 57-year-old Zhang Shihe, High Tech, Low Life maintains a certain level of interest.
There’s many similarities between these stalwarts of free speech (they both blog about stories the government wants to suppress, and because of this have become distant from their families and run the risk of legal punishment), but it’s the differences that are most striking. For Zhou, who goes by the online moniker Zola, the ambition to publish bottom-up news stories (which feature himself in videos) is, as he freely admits, to become famous; for Zhang, also known as Tiger Temple, the ambition seems to stem from wanting to correct the feeling of being short-changed by a country he was taught to put before his own family. Where Tiger Temple cares most about helping his fellow countrymen overcome problems that the government ignores and has possibly created, Zola uses his blog selfishly, as a means to further his own success, which he proudly claims is the first step toward “breaking down the communist mindset.” That such heroic efforts could be stirred by political agitation is no surprise, but that they could be fueled solely by shameless vanity is, if only at first, a surprise because such individualistic values are anathema to traditional Chinese society. It’s a similar kind of shock as the one in 2010 when a young woman on the Chinese show You Are the One turned down a suitor, who was offering her a bike ride, with the line: “I would rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.”
The haphazard way High Tech, Low Life is edited together doesn’t necessarily hinder its clarity, but because of the way it incorporates video and audio content created by Zola and Tiger Temple, there are times where it’s difficult to discern their contributions from Stephen Maing’s direction. And since the doc gives little sense of when scenes are happening (with the exception of those concerning the Olympics), there’s a sense that it’s meandering, which isn’t helped by how the doc often leaves in extraneous shots of, for example, Tiger Temple’s long-distance bike rides that feature superimposed maps. Despite all this, the doc does manage to rise above being boilerplate, and it should at least partly satisfy technophiles and China human-rights watchdogs alike.