The young Chinese filmmaker Tracy Dong has made her debut in the realm of feature-length documentaries with “In Character”. Her background in filming performance arts is evident in her unique and provocative approach that combines the two seemingly unrelated topics: contemporary filmmaking and a certain period in Chinese history seen through the prism of personal memories and beliefs. “In Character” is still touring the festivals since its premiere at the last year’s edition of Gothenburg Film Festival and caught our eye at Chinese Visual Festival.

In Character” is screening at Chinese Visual Festival

By her own account, Dong has started the project with the intention to examine the position of actors in the contemporary Chinese cinema, but ended up somewhere else – deep in the territory of history, politics and the gap between the different generations in the society of China regarding the lifestyle, ideas and experiences. The frame for that is a fiction film by the veteran director Ye Jing, imagined as a combination of a pious epic and lyrical reflection of the period of his youth during the Cultural Revolution.

The actors coming from a completely different social and political framework (being born in the times of One Child Policy), apart from knowing a song or a parole or two from the revolutionary period, cannot actually relate to it. The idealism and the dedication of the revolutionary generation to the cause of building modern China and to its leader, Chairman Mao, is unknown and even incomprehensible to the ones that grew up with privileges in a materialistic oriented modern world. So the director wants, if not to teach them a lesson, than at least to demonstrate the spirit of the revolution to the actors by taking them to an abandoned ammunition factory deep in provincial Sichuan. Things escalate quickly,since the visit to the factory is not intended to be a field-trip to the Chinese Communism theme park, but an immersive experience for the actors who must wear Red Guard uniforms, sing songs and live by the same rules as their fictional characters, including a brutal simulation of a Party hearing where a man who has “sinned” against the Revolution must repent through self-criticism in front of a committee.

No matter how this practice might seem obsolete and brutal from a nowadays perspective, it was pretty much “business as usual” in a variety of communist countries. And since communism was never a compact set of ideological beliefs, the Chinese Cultural Revolution doctrine was brutal even for its totalitarian standards. However, for Ye Jing and his generation, it was something acceptable and the director holds the idealism of the time in high regard and is put off by the spoiled attitude of his actors. On the other hand, the invisible, but ever-present Dong is closer generation-wise to the actors (for that matter, so is your humble reviewer), so she sympathises with them, while also being stunned and even fascinated by the brutality of not just Ye Jing’s experiment, but also the brutality of the system and people’s ability to quickly fall in with it.

Dynamically shot using the hand-held camera and competently edited by Eddie Xing, “In Character” is a handsome and interesting watch that provides the unique and honest insight into dealing with the totalitarian past and generational gap in the present. Because of its unique approach, it works on a completely different level than most documentaries on either historical or professional themes would.

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