The schism between local and national politics in China is massive: Figures like Geng Yanbo, the titular subject of The Chinese Mayor, are directly engaged with and responsible to the citizenry, while regional and statewide communist officials are largely sheltered from media scrutiny and political scandal. This helps to explain the surprising access gained by director Zhou Hao, who listens in on Geng’s phone calls and follows him through meetings and travel junkets, but doesn’t account for the film’s light comedy and intricate characterization. As Geng balances ambitions to transform the city of Datong into a shrine to Chinese culture and history with bureaucratic mandates to demolish 30% of the city’s housing (and relocate half a million residents), Zhou’s film plays out like an episode of Parks and Recreation directed by the Maysles brothers.
Datong is a former imperial capital in northern China and, thanks to local coal-mining outfits, it’s the country’s most polluted city. Many of its residents have lived in informal housing for generations, and are only now being punished for lacking official property forms. Citizens line up at the gate of Geng’s home and stand in front of steamrollers to protest the impending demolition of their home; the mayor, good-natured and genuinely concerned for the welfare of his city, manages their concerns on a case-by-case basis, without impeding the progress of his rebuilding plans. Zhao hangs back with some of these residents, but also gains access to higher-level meetings of regional mayors and party members, racing after Geng as he rushes through walled compounds and into appointments. The mayor is a workhorse, and his wife—the scene-stealer of this year’s True/False—fears for his health, worrying he’ll toil himself to death. “Are you tired of living?” she pleads repeatedly, both over the phone and as she enters a meeting, unbidden.
Geng talks incessantly about his love for Chinese culture, and his hopes for Datong to become a hub of art and tourism. He’s less forthcoming about his city’s relocation project, though he’s adamant about rooting out corruption in the state-sponsored construction companies responsible for Datong’s redevelopment. Hao doesn’t render a judgment on Geng’s ambition, and allows the citizens to articulate the mayor’s disorienting combination of great power and ultimate impotence: Even those who’ve been uprooted by the relocation project praise him. “He demolished my home,” one says, “but he made Datong prosperous.” Geng’s resourcefulness and empathy make the mayor seem like a potential source of hope for China’s future, but his ultimate fate is a sobering reminder that his bosses want to exploit him for his less honorable qualities.
Finders Keepers, directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Twell, is a less revealing regional portrait. A quirky media-sensation doc in the mold of Seth Gordon’s King of Kong (Gordon is an executive producer here), the film concerns two North Carolina men in a ribald legal dispute over a severed leg. Shannon Whisnant, a self-styled entrepreneur, discovered the leg in a pressure cooker when he purchased the contents of an overdue storage unit at auction. After the story hits the media, Whisnant begins calling himself the “Foot Man,” creating merchandise and selling tickets to view the grill. John Wood, the man who lost this leg in a plane crash that killed his father, catches wind of Whisnant’s actions, and sues to get his property back.
The film doesn’t condescend to its subjects, but it does exploit them for the sake of a superficial crowd-pleaser, complete with catchphrase malapropisms and sad aspirations toward fame and fortune. The twisty narrative makes for some queasy viewing. Wood and Whisnant appear on a German talk show, engage in a battle of wits on a local Fox affiliate, and eventually resolve their dispute on a daytime court-TV program. Meanwhile, Carberry and Twell lurch clumsily between screwball humor and recollections of personal tragedy set to maudlin music, as Wood and Whisnant open up about cold fathers their struggles with addiction. It’s a wild yarn, but that’s all Finders Keepers aspires to be; its gestures toward any statements about class and micro-celebrity are fleeting and half-hearted.
Set almost entirely in a French employment-recruitment firm, Rules of the Game is a documentary David Foster Wallace would have loved. With Wisemanesque quietude and a sneaky sense of humor (note the title, and its attendant critique of the social hierarchy), Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard observe the goings-on at Igneus, a company that assists marginalized young adults in seeking full-time work. The firm’s arrangement seems to mirror the American system of unemployment insurance: Jobseekers receive 300 euros a month if they attend weekly advising sessions and demonstrate an effort to find work. The meetings are a marvel of late-capitalist parlance, with advisors spouting phrases like “invest in your professional project” and “focus on you, not on I.” The film’s subjects react to this nonsense with skepticism, mocking humor, and the occasional act of outright rebellion. One woman enters a mock job interview and declares that her primary shortcoming is her intolerance for authority: “I take it, and then blow a fuse.” Others scoff at the notion of taking unpaid internships instead of subsiding on odd jobs. Throughout, the directors emphasize the drive and character of these teenagers, even as they struggle with the vapid necessities of self-salesmanship. Rules of the Game is a modest gem that makes a major statement about the increasing inaccessibility of professional jargon and achievement.
True/False ran from March 5—8.