An elderly preacher and his son, who’s followed in Dad’s pulpit-thumping footsteps, argue over whether music is immoral. A truck driver in his twenties hauls his meager loads, taking what little work he can. A pig farmer, who’s devolved into a full-blown alcoholic, stumbles drunkenly around town. (Even his geriatric mother declares that he’s useless. Ouch.) A preteen boy forages in the woods for food like a feral animal; later, he takes part in a ritualistic ceremony to “drive away the ghosts.”
These are the citizens we meet in Zhao Dayong’s extraordinary documentary on life in the rural village of Zhiziluo, nestled at the foot of the mountains in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Never mind the nation’s great economic leap forward; the longer you watch Zhao’s chronicle of the financially destitute and the bureaucratically forgotten (and it’s a lengthy doc), the more you feel that you’re witnessing a country fraying at its edges. Though it’s divided into three chapters—“Voices,” “Recollections” and “Innocence”—the film takes a largely free-form look at a dying community that’s more reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s nonfiction case studies than the usual sociopolitical hand-wringing. Still, the film’s parting shot of a Mao statue, his arms outstretched over an empty street, sums up its position in a single image.