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The Chinese Mayor

A Film Review


The Chinese Mayor
Directed by: Zhou Hou; Produced by Zhao Qi
China, 2015
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
86 minutes in duration

Available on Amazon and iTunes.
Trailer available on YouTube.

The city of Datong is located in Shanxi province in China. It has a long history and at one point was known for being a cultural and historic landmark. However, over the years industry developed, leaving it very polluted, and it became known as the “City of Coal.”

In 2008, Geng Yanbo was assigned to be the mayor of Datong by the Communist Party with a directive to fix the city, hoping to return it to being a flourishing hub of culture and tourism. In order to make this happen, Geng had an elaborate plan that involved relocating 500,000 people (30% of the city) and this is where the story begins.

The director, Zhou Hou, was given incredible access to film this documentary, following the mayor around including sitting in on government meetings and closed-door discussions. This film presents a reasonably balanced perspective of the situation, such that viewers may find themselves being both sympathetic and frustrated towards all parties involved throughout the film.

Early on, when residents are being evicted and relocated, especially those that are poor and have no place to go, your heart breaks for these people that have the very roof over their heads taken away from them. Residents are angry, frustrated, and despite efforts to raise the issue through the system, don’t feel heard.

I really don’t know what to teach my son. Should I tell him to trust the law and the government and stand up for his rights? Or should I just tell him to give up?

—Datong resident

Later on, we see all that Geng has put into this job and when his career takes an unexpected turn, Zhou is able to capture the emotional side of the mayor, showing the dedication he has brought to trying to revitalize Datong.

This film also does well in showing how things are commonly done in China. The first being that when rules/policies/plans come from the top, the execution/enforcement is often messy. This was definitely true in this case. Geng had very thought-through plans but those who implemented the changes were poor in communication with the result that inhabitants who should have been taken care of, were not.

Another common occurrence in fast-developing China seen in this film is the accelerated approach of “creating culture.” Geng wants to build a city of culture because he believes that is what will last. He’s not wrong. But building culture cannot be rushed and historic culture cannot simply be imported. At one point he says “as long as it’s before our time, we should use it,” referring to historic decorations used to furnish a new building. He speaks of Rome and Paris as examples of cities with memorable, lasting culture. Well, those cities took a long time to become what they are today.

I’m creating a featured city by transforming industry into culture. The spirit of Datong lies in its culture. Its traditional culture is its unique advantage, and promises Datong a bright future.

—Geng

This film gives a good look at real life complications that are likely taking place in many developing and redeveloping areas in China.

Geng’s aspirations for Datong go beyond the directive he’s been given. It is clear that his passion has become personal. Whether he succeeds or not I’ll leave to you to find out but this film is worth the watch. It is as much about the journey of a man as it is the journey of a city.

Image credit: The Chinese Mayor trailer.
Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit... View Full Bio


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