Twelve incomplete sneak peaks at the commoners’ modern China

“This country is shit.”

During last Sunday’s screening of Xiaolu Guo’s 2009 documentary “Once Upon a Time Proletarian”, the first of twelve discrete snapshots of the lives of average Chinese people begins with an old farmer boldly criticizing the country for its moral decay and rampant corruption. Plowing through the wheat field, the old farmer speaks with a heavy northern and a tint of humor. The harvest isn’t so good, he says as he takes out a cigarette.

According to the director, Once Upon a Time Proletarian was, more or less, a previously unintended side project conceived during Luo’s production of her feature film. It is meant to be subjective and spontaneous; it is intended to capture the moment, and the moment only, when the subjects’ eyes meet the camera.  Though fragmented, universal themes of dreams, life, ambition, and reality still reverberated throughout the film.

There’s a small restaurant owner who openly admits that she is worn out by life and chooses to retreat back to mindless leisure activities after a hard day of work and not think about the vexing social and political environment surrounding her. There’s a young, female fish shop owner, working in a common but probably extremely unsanitary and unpleasant space to most American viewers, saying that she has worked in this place for more than a decade and this life now is without a doubt a lot better than her life back in her old village. There’s a car washer around my age, if not younger, who works in Beijing but hates the arrogant, big-city customers he has to face on a daily basis; he says he is working hard so that he can buy his parents a better house back in the village.

The short clips of the “proletarian” class in China quite poignantly reveal the bleak living conditions and outlooks of the underprivileged, lower class non-elites in contemporary China. The way Luo approached the subjects of her film, however, is rather unfocused, lacking a clear objective. I think Luo explained pretty well why this was so in her interview. Once Upon a Time Proletarian was not the kind of documentary that had careful planning and thorough conception of direction and purpose prior to its production. It is destined to be unfocused. I still, however, hold that this “biological” weakness that resulted in a very dispersed narrative greatly reduced the quality of the film.

I wish Luo had looked into more middle-class, urban, educated families and juxtapose the sneak peaks of their lives with the lives of the “proletarians.” I think we will be able to observe many surprisingly interesting parallels and differences that would help us understand the average Chinese better. It is true that one of the 12 stories is about a wealthy female entrepreneur, but the segment is so weak comparing to the rest that it reaches to a point. I do, however, really like the black and white clips of children reading from the book; I think it’s a very ingenuous way to connect the twelve, loosely related pieces of “tales.”

Despite its shortcomings, Once Upon a Time still inspired a little something in me. As an aspiring documentarian striving with the high hopes of digging out the human stories of ordinary people, I understand and appreciate Luo’s intentions from a very personal point of view.

Once Upon A Time Proletarian 曾经的无产者
Dir. GUO Xiaolu 郭小橹
China/Germany/UK. 2009.
76 min. Digibeta. English subtitles.

ONCE UPON A TIME A PROLETARIAN from Interior13 Cine on Vimeo.