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Screening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.
“Dragon Boat” is the latest film from acclaimed Chinese director and artist Cao Dan, a feature documentary which charts the effects of modernisation on the tradition of dragon boat racing. Having played to critical praise at the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival and DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival, the film is now set to have its UK premiere at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival in London.
Although many people may be familiar enough with dragon boats, most non-Chinese are probably unaware of the deep roots which the festival itself has in Chinese culture, being linked to the tale of the poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in 278 BC after the collapse of the country. The film explores this through the case of Lianxi, a village on an island in southern China whose inhabitants were forced to resettle in 2003 due to the construction of a new University Town in the area. Although their village was eventually transformed into a kind of folk culture tourist resort, the old inhabitants still return every year in an attempt to continue the tradition of dragon boat racing.
In “Dragon Boat”, Cao Dan has found a highly effective means of examining the fate of ancient traditions in the face of the unstoppable tide of modernisation in China, as well as a very personal story which meditates upon the human cost of development. The tale of Lianxi is certainly a fascinating one, and the film, which began shooting in 2001 does a great, well-paced job of charting the whole process of eviction and redevelopment and following the villagers as they struggle to come to terms with the enforced changes to their way of life. It’s here that Cao Dan really impresses, as though the film is quite grim in its own way and includes scenes of destruction, she manages to present a balanced and calm perspective. As a documentary, “Dragon Boat” remains accessible and open rather than overtly political, and as a result is engaging even for viewers previously unaware of the issues it tackles. Crucially, this also ensures that it never loses sight of the inherently human element of the story, with the villagers and their experiences featuring prominently throughout.
The film is all the more convincing and engaging for the fact that it never resorts to obvious and simplistic ranting about the evils of government. Focusing instead mainly on the ways in which traditions are preserved and handed down, it attains a powerful and profound feeling of irony, in particular through the creation of the folk culture tourist resort, designed to give an authentic experience of something which to the villagers themselves is far more than mere nostalgia. What comes from this is a sense of confusion rather than anger, and the film is reflective and quietly passionate without offering any real answers or artificially manipulating its content towards any forced conclusions. There’s certainly nothing too preachy here, and while the lack of any narration (a common feature of independent Chinese documentary films) may leave viewers more used to more regimented Western style documentaries a little lost at times, this fits well with Cao Dan’s contemplative approach, and the film’s structure and storytelling are strong.
“Dragon Boat” also benefits from some superb visuals, and unlike some documentaries is a very cinematic affair. Unsurprisingly showing a real artistry in its shots and editing, the film’s images complement is themes and help to tell its story very well, from the early scenes of the Lianxi dragon boat being buried in a pond after a race to help preserve it, through to the later stages when the village has been replaced by the resort. The film has an excellent eye for contrast, and without hammering things home unnecessarily, its visuals do a fantastic job of portraying the uncertain existence of an ancient tradition in modern times.
“Dragon Boat” is an excellent example of how documentary film making can deal with a controversial subject without hysteria, and can do so with humanity and poetic grace. Highly engaging and artistic, it’s an interesting and exceptionally well-made piece of cinema, which should be enjoyable even for those not normally attracted by the documentary form or with any knowledge of dragon boats or modernisation in China.
Cao Dan (director)