Movie Review: Boomtown Beijing

Movie Review: Boomtown Beijing

Boomtown Beijing does fulfill its basic mission of capturing how ordinary Beijing residents are preparing for the Olympics. It’s an interesting cross-section of Beijing–there’s an old man practicing magic sticks, a nearly blind sprinter preparing for the Paralympics, a young boy who wants to be torch-bearer even though he’s too young. These are people who are lit up, from the inside, by their dreams, but who are, nonetheless, quite aware of the possibility that their dreams will never come to pass.

The only real complaint that I had with this movie was that it was a bit too rough, and by this I mean its editing and structure, rhythm, and pacing–there were several characters, each developed in parallel. The characters were introduced with subtitles, rather than narration–somehow it came across a bit haphazard. There was no real connection between any of the characters, which made each one a separate vignette, tied together “externally” only by the fact that we know they are all preparing, in their way, for the Olympics. Although by including all these disparate characters we are offered more information, it never gelled together; there was no cohesive narrative, the pace sometimes seemed slow, since we were always a bit in teh dark as to what was happening with each character.

I’m not the type of film viewer that likes to be told everything, and I’m also a part-time fan of the fly-on-the-wall school of filmmaking, which dispenses with talking heads and narrators imposing their version of events on you. However, there were times when I wish Boomtown Beijing had precisely that–something or someone weaving the threads together. We go from the characters and their individual quests to investigations of the changing physical landscape of Beijing–which is fine, since the latter is an intellectually interesting topic in itself and also terribly topical because the ancient capital is, in many ways, getting a major facelift, and what was will never be again. However, Boomtown Beijing dips its toes in the water but doesn’t want to get too wet. Given that it was made by students and staff at the Beijing Film Academy on an obvious shoestring budget, perhaps we shouldn’t ask that it go too into depth. It wasn’t meant to be some Ken Burns-Esque heavy on historical research and overview type documentary. I am merely stating what I felt as I was watching it. Perhaps it is to the film’s credit that it at least elicits this greater curiosity in the subject.

By the end of the film, you get a better sense of who each person is, and things start falling into place. Still, there’s not much narrative thrust…as I said before, the film seems to be have made in a short time, on the cheap, and life isn’t always as packed with drama as fiction is. I think Boomtown Beijing works as a light sketch of life for some Beijing Olympics fanatics in the run-up to the games–but not necessarily as a highly nuanced or detailed portrait of a human and physical/built environment in flux. The latter is a higher order, no doubt, that will have to be left to someone with more time and credit cards.

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