All too often our preconceived notions of foreign nations are based on politics. Think of China and visions of Communism, the enormous population, or low-income industrialization may come to mind. It’s easy to forget that despite our political and religious differences, the world is full of people like you and me just trying to survive day-to-day.
Jason Reid, the director of the Webby award-winning Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team, switches gears for his latest documentary. In Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai, Reid and his three friends take a massive road trip by bicycle, accompanied by a sole translator and guide.
The purpose was to explore this powerful and enigmatic country off the beaten track and in a personal and intimate manner. Eschewing guidebooks and tourist traps, the five-man group discovers the beauty and problems hidden within the developing superpower.
In Mandarin, “Man Zou” means to “walk slow.” It’s a philosophy well-suited to the team’s bicycle trip. The group comes across the normal travails typically seen during a long road trip; such as flat tires and other equipment problems. There are also the cultural differences. Have you ever been to Hawaii and gawked at the large numbers of Japanese tourists taking pictures? The roles are reversed here as the four Caucasian bicyclists (and one Chinese guide) pass through semi-rural Chinese villages rarely seen by Westerners. Here, the white men with blonde hair and thick beards are the attraction; themselves becoming the subject of amusement and photo opportunities.
Then there is the dark side of modernization. China’s massive growth has led to unbelievable levels of air pollution. 44% of people now live in China’s urban centers and Team Man Zou witnesses pollution levels unseen in the U.S. in 100 years. Man Zou has a heavy environmental feel to it but the film never beats you over the head with it. Things are tough over there, plain and simple, and the pollution affects Chinese citizens.
The group also finds a country with an identity crisis. Rural villages are emptying. Young people are leaving their elders to find difficult, blue-collar city jobs. The neglect of rural life has produced surprising changes in China’s cities; changes you might not suspect. Much like the United States, the gap there is diving with the rich getting richer and the middle class shrinking.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. The spirit of the Chinese people is captured in the way they live and the way they dine. The Americans dive into the culture and eat things not often seen outside of the Travel Channel. The men come to realize that China’s massive development and growing pains stem from a desire motivated less by world domination than by a desire to provide a prosperous and modern life for itself. Like most people, they want to get theirs, but this road is long, hard, and ever evolving.
As Portland is a bicycle-friendly community, Man Zou: Shanghai to Beijing should interest many. However, this film is much more than a basic travelogue. It’s a sociological look into a nation and people we probably should all understand a little better. This simple bicycle ride revealed to the men and to the audience our nations’ contrasts and similarities. The Chinese are truly as curious about us as we are about them; in fact more so.
I’ve given you a lot of information, but there is much more to discover than what I have written. Shot raw and dirty, Man Zou is wonderfully edited and filed with interesting images. Paired with Sonicsgate, Reid and his team form a talented group of young filmmakers we need to keep our eyes on.
Reid will present a special screening of Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai for the NW Film Center at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium Sunday May 23rd at 7:15 p.m. Team Man Zou will be on hand to answer questions afterward so this is a great opportunity to present any burning questions you have about Chinese culture.
4.5 out of 5
Man Zou - www.2rfilm.com/manzou
Sonicsgate – watch the movie online at www.sonicsgate.org
Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai
Sunday, May 23rd: 7:15 p.m.
Portland Art Museum