“August, Beijing” is a collection of short films from a variety of directors which chart some of the many different far-reaching ways in which hosting the 2008 Olympic Games affected the city and its residents. Covering a wide variety of different experiences, from taxi drivers, elderly residents and student volunteers through to artists and performers, the 8 films, mostly around 10 minutes or so in length, presents its own unique perspective, giving an insight not just into the aftershock of the Olympics, but into the fast changing modern Chinese society. The collection recently screened at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival in London, and includes:
The Neighbourhood Committee’s Olympic Fire (Director: Yu Qiong)
This somewhat light-hearted film follows the enthusiastic efforts of a Beijing local neighbourhood committee to maintain order and security during the passing of the Olympic torch through the area. Taking the task very seriously indeed, the committee try to drag all the nearby inhabitants into their charge through a variety of hilariously overzealous methods.
Volunteer (Director: Zhao Liang)
At just 3 minutes, “Volunteer” the shortest film in the collection, though is an effective and interesting affair despite its brief length, succinctly capturing the worries of a 20 year old Olympic volunteer called Zhao Dan. With her hometown Mianzhu having been severely hit by the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, she is unable to shake off her fears and a feeling of guilt that she should have remained at home to help, reflecting the huge impact of such a terrible event on the nation as a whole.
Are you a Sportsman? (Director: Yan Fei)
Another lighter film, “Are you a Sportsman?” revolves around Zhiyuan, a young sports-crazy boy who travels from his hometown in Zhejiang to Beijing for the Olympics. Camping out in the airport with his family, he tries to get the autographs of as many athletes arriving for the games as possible, resulting in some very funny and touching scenes as he races around, single-mindedly approaching anyone who even looks like they might be a sportsman or woman.
Tianqiao Memories (Director: Zhang Yan)
Not so obviously linked to the Olympics, this film focuses on an important issue in China today, namely the disappearance of folk and traditional cultures as a result of fast mass modernisation. In this, the film briefly looks at the case of Beijing Tianqiao folk culture, following a group of performers who try to keep the practice alive through putting on a show filled with their most famous acrobatic stunts.
Artists’ Dream in August (Director: Xiong Liang)
“Artists’ Dream in August” is a fairly straightforward documentary style short that features interviews with 10 Beijing resident painters. The effect of the Olympics on their art and lives is demonstrated through their attempts to begin construction on a planned new studio during the games in the city’s renowned art district.
Taxi (Director: Zhu Chunguan)
Another shorter film, clocking in at 6 minutes, “Taxi” sees the director taking a random taxi in Beijing during the Olympics and asking a series of questions about his life. Through this and the passing scenery, the film tries to throw light on how the games have changed the life and work of ordinary citizens.
Life Carries On (Director: Zhou Houheng)
An interesting film which again tackles the interaction between modern and traditional culture, in this instance by presenting the story of Grandpa Han, an old man who teaches Tai Chi every day beneath the city’s Bell Tower. The film shows how during the Olympics, Han still teaches Tai Chi, with tourists from both within China and from overseas all packing themselves into his usual spot.
Alert in Beijing (Director: Hu Tingting)
“Alert in Beijing” tackles an issue likely to be of paramount concern for any city hosting the Olympics: security. This was perhaps even more so for Beijing, and the film paints an impressive picture of just how massive the 2008 security operation was, with over 80,000 volunteers employed to help maintain order, all spread across the vast metropolis.
As with any collection or anthology piece, the films do vary somewhat in terms of their success, the best of the bunch undoubtedly being “The Neighbourhood Committee’s Olympic Fire” and “Are you a Sportsman?”, both of which make excellent use of the short film format, taking a simple through effective premise and bringing it to life with warmth and humour. Though all of the films have something to offer, and perhaps more importantly combine well as a coherent whole, it is fair to say that a few are less engaging, with “Taxi” being a bit short to really work as more than an anecdotal observational piece, and “Tianqiao Memories” and “Artists’ Dream in August” being a bit dry and feeling more like infomercials or advertisements (partly due to an unintentionally amusing American voice over).
Still, these dips are not unexpected, and “August, Beijing” certainly does a great job of offering up a satisfying variety of different looks at the Olympics in China, many of which probably won’t have been seen by viewers in the West in particular. Covering both universal and uniquely Chinese concerns, there’s likely to be something of interest for everyone here, and with the films all being short and for the most part concise, it works well as a sort of cultural kaleidoscope or series of montages, being at times serious, and others funny and colourful.