Sundance 2015: The Chinese Mayor Is the First Great Political Documentary of the Year

By  · Published on January 28th, 2015

Sundance Film Festival

Datong is an overwhelming place. Home to three and a half million people, this historic mining center is now the most polluted city in China. Like many metropolises in the world’s largest nation, it also has a huge housing problem. The scale of these urban challenges is the visual foreground of Hao Zhou’s The Chinese Mayor, the first great political documentary of 2015. New apartment blocks tower over nearby lots, which would be empty were they not brimming over with piles of rubble. Everything seems bigger in Datong, from the 21st century developments to the 5th century Buddhist temple grottoes carved out of rock.

Zhou uses his camera to capture the physicality of Datong’s contradictions. He finds small dogs amidst the remains of knocked down houses, modern tourists visiting ancient sites, and newly relocated farmers stranded in the urban school system. In the middle of it all is Mayor Geng Tanbo, the incarnation of Datong’s confused coexistences. He’s an atheist Communist with a little figurine of Chairman Mao on his dashboard, in the company of which he recites Buddhist mantras. His signature project is the reconstruction of an enormous 14th century wall that encircled the city. It is at once a symbol of cultural history and 21st century construction, a replica of a medieval monument of the state produced by contemporary China’s bevy of independent and enormously wealthy contractors.