Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) Movie Review

Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2011) Movie PosterScreening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.

“Once Upon a Time Proletarian” is a 2009 documentary feature from acclaimed director, novelist and poet Guo Xiaolou, also known for her award winning fiction films “She, A Chinese” and “UFO in her Eyes”. The film offers a fascinating and often darkly humorous deconstruction of modern Chinese society through a series of interviews and snapshots with a variety of people in different stations in life, and having played at several prominent international festivals including Venice, Pusan and Toronto, it now screens in London at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.

With a running time of around 75 minutes, the film is split into 12 chapters of roughly equal length, separated by black and white footage of young children reading out stories and fables. The 12 chapters each focus on a different individual through a mixture of interviews and footage following them in their daily lives, revealing the hardships they face, and their views on modern Chinese society and the radical changes it has undergone since the days of Mao and the great revolution. The people selected are an eclectic and interesting bunch, including a foul mouthed old peasant, a young man from the countryside who now washes cars, a woman who runs café at a bus station, fish sellers, hotel workers and more.

Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) Movie Image

“Once Upon a Time Proletarian” gets off to a very memorable start, with some superbly bleak cinematography and a real shocker of a character in the old peasant, who spends almost all of his segment swearing, cursing, ranting against the other people living in his rundown village and lamenting the loss of Mao and the communist spirit. The film continues from here in shifting, often unpredictable fashion as it runs through its short, well-paced sections, painting a picture of an incredibly complicated society and of people trapped by the past and old notions while struggling to find their place in the modern world. Where the film really succeeds is in that despite covering some potentially very depressing and damning ground, Guo Xiaolou directs with a cynical, though non-judgemental eye, and never falls back on obvious anti-government criticism or a simply black and white dichotomy of the rich and the poor.

As a result, the film feels less about exploitation or trying to assign any kind of blame, and more a Marxist themed exploration of the question of identity, with its subjects talking about their hopes and dreams for the future. Although grim in places and flirting with nihilism, the film still manages to attain an all-important human connection, and this helps to keep the viewer engaged throughout. The film also benefits from a fair amount of dark comic relief, with some ironic use of patriotic imagery and songs making for an amusing and telling comparison between the past and present, highlighting the often strange ways in which people have clung to propagandist legends and have worked them into their lives and belief systems. Several of the characters are similarly quite funny, including an overzealous park worker and the unforgettably bitter peasant of the opening scene.

Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) Movie Image

This gives “Once Upon a Time Proletarian” a valuable sense of balance and a welcome injection of near-surrealism, ensuring that it’s entertaining as well as intellectually stimulating. Directed with real artistry and skilful storytelling by Guo Xiaolou, it’s an excellent and highly creative documentary which should be enjoyed by anyone interested in taking a look at the turmoil behind rapid modernisation in China.

Guo Xiaolu (director)