WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Before Wuhan became known across the world as the first hotspot of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was just the largest, most populous megapolis in Central China, where, like in any other big city, industry and wealth coexisted with the sprawling humanity of those not included in the program of prosperity. “City Dream” follows Wang Tiancheng, a 70-year old man who makes a living selling fruit and clothes on the curb of a busy Wuhan street along with his family, which includes disabled and underage members. As gentrification is coming to the area, the city’s Urban Management Bureau seeks to displace Wang to make way for the fancy new developments. However, Wang is not going without a fight.
WHO MADE IT: Weijun Chen is a Chinese filmmaker who is best known for his ability to use insular situations as metaphors that allow the viewers to explore what’s happening globally. He’s best known abroad for his film “Please Vote for Me” about a third-grade election in a Wuhan school. His other projects include “This Is Life” about a hospital, “The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World” about a novelty enterprise, and “To Live is Better Than to Die” about the AIDS-infection crisis in China.
Because the film isn’t officially out yet, the details of the crew are unclear.
The film’s main protagonists are Weng Tiancheng, his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his granddaughter.
WHY DO WE CARE: China’s economic policies in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution—the so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—has lifted 800 million people out of poverty. The work continues, yet citizens in the rural regions of the country remain wanting a better life, which propels the movement to large cities. In turn, they are increasingly getting gentrified, reiterating the cycle of displacement.
While gentrification, the people it displaces, and those not included in the economic growth are omnipresent, it’s the approaches to them that differ from the ones ubiquitous in Western capitalism. “City Dream” is fascinating viewing in the context of how things work in organized systems, especially when a citizen enters full engagement with the state. And even though the film’s events are limited in scope, therefore, rendering it near impossible to understand the full, lasting impact of gentrification on Wang and his family, it’s very interesting to observe the many similarities and contrasts in the approaches that exist in the West and the East.
In the film, Wang’s daughter-in-law expresses that she’d rather stay in Wuhan and have to recycle bottles for a living than return to her village. Indeed, the city is not as easy to exist in or navigate, and living in it comes with particular complications, which, however, people have to reconcile with to stay. The way the film explores it calls for comparisons with “Plastic China,” as well as other documentaries set around laborer issues and lives.
The coronavirus pandemic has made comparisons between the Chinese model and capitalism even more pointed than ever, as the Asian countries following the socialist program, such as China and Vietnam, managed to overcome the dangers quickly. Simultaneously, the capitalist United States remains flailing deep in crisis at the time of the writing. And through it all, the Western governments decry Chinese conspiracies behind the virus or the “surveillance” state that prevented the more substantial death toll, instead of trying to understand what is it that made the Wuhan recovery so efficient. This way looking at the systems in place, as made possible by “City Dream,” becomes not only fascinating viewing but akin to a case study.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: China is an incredibly fascinating landscape, which is, however, almost impossible to examine critically from abroad without falling into the Western propaganda-fueled sinophobia that’s so in vogue today. Crafted without overlayed narrative in the verité style, “City Dream” allows a close but unobstructed look at the situation when someone exists on the fringes of the ongoing development in China. And while it draws many parallels to the similar trends in the West, it invites a non-biased observation.
There is no singular takeaway from the film possible. The lens’s neutrality doesn’t try to valorize Wang in his lowest moments—the man has explosive episodes of anger aimed at both his opponents in city government and his wife—nor does it try to demonize the government workers, who, at least within the film’s narrative, seem to be trying to retain a form of humanity in their interactions with Wang. Watching the film’s events unravel is pleasurable and thought-provoking on many levels: Wang provides a breathtaking instance of sticking it to the man, while the restraint of the law enforcement is a welcome respite from the police brutality we keep observing in the US. Who knew that the resistance to urban development could have such blockbuster qualities?
Watching “City Dream,” now one can’t help but wonder how each of the film participants fared in the epidemic, especially the elderly Wang and his ailing wife, who are in the high-risk group. And what about a strain on their profits that the outbreak and the lockdowns most definitely caused? No other film in the world right now could warrant a more timely and nuanced sequel—perhaps Chen is working on one right now, if everything is fine with him, too. But the way the government in the film is shaped around the citizens gives a hint of structural flexibility and horizontality that capitalism doesn’t nurture, and that likely became a boon in the battle against COVID-19 and its consequences.
A film that’s simultaneously amusing, upsetting, and stimulating, “City Dream” is engrossing both on its own merits and as a way to put a civil face to Wuhan, the city we’ve been so obsessed with collectively yet know very little about. Rigorous and human, it’s the best testament to Chen’s ability to see the world reflected in a micro-conflict and will keep you on the edge of the seat as only the finest documentaries can. Meanwhile, the protagonist, Wang Tiancheng, is quite possibly one of the most unforgettable documentary film characters of the last decade: watching him stage his acts of defiance is one magnificent masterclass for aspiring rioters.
City Dream, 2019
Director: Weijun Chen
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