Part of his series exploring institutions in China, Zhou Hao’s remarkable 2009 documentary “The Transition Period” offers an amazingly frank look at the workings of the Chinese government as it follows a civil servant during his last three months as party secretary of an underdeveloped county. Guo Yongchang is the politician in question, the party secretary of the Committee of the Communist Party of Gushi County in Xinyang Municipality of Henan Province, which has a population of around 1.6 million spread across 32 smaller towns. As with other counties, Gushi is administered by both a county government and a county party committee.
In the film, Zhou reveals the many complexities of Guo’s job and the way in which personal relations often take precedence over regulations in Chinese politics, depicting the constant manipulation needed to keep farmers, workers and other factions onside, and the level to which rules are treated as flexible in the face of practicalities and in the name of maintaining what amounts to a harmonious society. In this regard, Guo is seen doing his job very successfully indeed, frequently managing to defuse situations with protesting peasants, pacifying them with promises of compensation that he genuinely seems to want to provide. Though driven at least partly by self-interest, he comes across as an essentially decent and generally well-liked servant of the people.
At the same time though, he is clearly a contradictory figure, on the one hand speaking out about the need for the government to save money by having less drinking at lavish banquets, while being captured many times on camera getting incredibly drunk during publically funded dinners – a hypocrisy which he at least seems to be well aware of. As well as helping the poorer people of the county, he is seen taking bribes, and cutting deals with businesses in return for favours and helping them with their developments. Corruption is rife, from petty excesses through to more serious abuses of power, though where the film really shocks is not so much in the revelation that such activities take place, but in that Guo treats them as everyday parts of government work.
Though at nearly two hours, it’s undeniably a long film and quite hard going at times, there’s always something going on, and these controversial scenes in particular help to hold the interest. At times it’s a little hard to believe that Guo was genuinely happy to be filmed indulging himself and behaving so badly – as seen for example when he gets particularly drunk when entertaining a western businessman (loading up on the red wine and moutai, a super strong Chinese spirit) and pushing handfuls of cake into his face.
Zhou tackles the subject in a quietly challenging and profoundly non-judgemental way, and it’s in this that the film’s power really lies, showing Guo to be but a small cog in the bureaucratic machine, and his behaviour, questionable though it may often be, as an almost inevitable part of the process. Economic change seems to be the driving force, and without explicitly spelling it out or ever taking the obvious route, the film presents a fascinating picture of the unique modern Chinese balance between the ideals of communism and the rampant capitalism and personal greed that has resulted in so many government officials making the headlines for corruption in recent years.
As a result, The Transition Period is a multi-layered and subtly provocative film which takes audiences behind the scenes of China’s central institution in extraordinary fashion, and which again proves Zhou a master of the observational form.
The Transition Period has its UK Premiere at the 2013 Chinese Visual Festival, on Sunday 1st June at 19:00. For more info and tickets visit the CVF website.