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Title: Interesting documentary, seemingly about variety of trains in China. Conversations with passengers and personnel make this movie an insightful survey of country and people
I saw this at the Rotterdam film festival 2015 (IFFR). Though I usually avoid documentaries, this one looked different when reading the festival website. And indeed it was different! Unbelievable how this 1-man film crew succeeded in producing a very interesting insight in not only the Chinese railways but also in the people living there. It is a country with people we know not so much about. What is so special about this film is that it not only shows various types of trains and passengers, but also witness conversations with passengers about politics and religion. I'm not sure it is deliberate by design, but we see a trend from overcrowded and messy local trains, gradually upgrading towards the ultra modern high-speed trains that China has in growing numbers.
The local trains seem overcrowded with people and their luggage, many people standing or sitting on the ground. These trains look rather old, seemingly overdue for decommissioning. We see meat being dissected in the open, we see large amounts of fruits and vegetables being boarded, apparently people heading for the market to sell their wares. We see everyone finding their place somewhere. All of them are very cooperative and move aside when the need arises, without the protests, comments and short-fused tempers usual in the country where I live.
Later on, we see trains that are less retarded, carrying people obviously prepared for a long journey, sleeping in uncomfortable positions, and displaying a variety of food and drinks for underway. Also sleeper coaches are included, enforcing the idea that these are long distance trains. In the end we move on to the other end of the train spectrum. We see the insides of very modern trains, apparently high speed ones (a display above the compartment door shows 306 km/h), much less crowded and much quieter.
This film offers much more than showcasing the variety of trains in use within China. A very nice feature of this film is that passengers and personnel are followed and interviewed along the ride. The tone of the interviews is very open, mostly optimistic, showing trust in the nation's policy and stating that China is one nation and should stay one nation. Also some Muslims are interviewed, bringing the conversation to mosques (or lack thereof) and freedom of religion, the latter seems a non-issue and is discussed in a much more relaxed way that I had assumed beforehand. In other interviews we observe some critical remarks, however, about house prices and the impossibility to rent an apartment, the latter being occupied by people with "connections". The house prices are indirectly responsible, so it seems, for the average late age to get married, combined with dominant role of mothers in law when matrimony is concerned. All in all, a very informative insight in how Chinese people live and think.
All in all, even when trains as transport vehicles cannot interest you, this still is a "must see" documentary. It is very interesting to watch, and provides for an inside view in a country and people of which we really don't know very much. The tone is not critical, however, and mostly satisfied with the current state of the nation and its politics.
You know that space between passenger rail cars that has accordion partitions so people don't fall off the train? Well imagine spending the first 10 minutes of a film in that space, half the time in darkness because the filmmaker wants you to become mezmerized like he is by the mundane sound of the train.
Then the view gradually lightens and you yet have no idea what you're being shown or why, then you realize the camera is gazing at the plastic partitions in very close-up as if you are on acid and you find the folds and valleys of the partition oh so fascinating. After several minutes of this you realize the filmmaker must be obsessive-compulsive. Then you are shown, in close-up again, scenes of animal butchery--vegetarians, do not go to this movie! Again, the filmmaker finds all this oddly mezmerizing and fascinating, enough so that the camera holds for many long moments lovingly gazing on a hunk of raw meat, or a whole liver hanging from a string, and in-the-face closeups of poor elderly grizzled cigarette-smoking men, and other lovely images. That's all the movie is, just the filmmaker providing a portrait of an unpleasant claustrophobic environment where no one else seems to want to be either.
A bit more traditional than most movies from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, THE IRON MINISTRY may be an attempt to immerses us in the environments of Chinese trains but there's always the sense of being a detached observer. That, itself, works well in the movie as we observe the goings on on various Chinese passenger trains, beginning with produce being carried on and meat being butchered in transit (prompting me to think we might be in for Steaks on a Train), and eventually visiting all sorts of accommodation from noisy, crowded compartments and passageways to sterile and nearly empty luxury seating.
As fascinating as it is to observe, we also eavesdrop and enter conversations with some of the passengers yielding some unexpectedly forthright conversations and insights into Chinese society.