A short film on the poetic sadness of China’s air pollution, by a censored director

Every day life in Beijing.
Every day life in Beijing.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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Jia Zhangke renowned film A Touch of Sin, which was banned by Chinese censors, examined the human toll of the country’s economic expansion. Now Jia is taking another bracing look at another side effect of China’s growth: Its horrific air pollution. In a short film made for Greenpeace, the director follows two different families in smog-filled Chinese cities. “No one gets to be different when it comes to smog, no matter what jobs we do, it is still a problem we all face,” he said in an accompanying video interview.

The urgency of China’s pollution problems are especially palpable this time of year, when the smog in northern Chinese cities like Beijing is at its thickest. According to new data from Greenpeace, the average levels of particulate matter were nearly double the country’s health standards in more than 90% of 190 Chinese cities tracked last year.

Researchers from the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and China’s Academy for Environmental Planning estimated that up to 500,000 Chinese residents die prematurely every year because of air pollution.

But beyond the numbers, Jia hopes to show the “poetry of sadness, or anxiety” of the lives of the people who are most affected by polluted air. The following Q&A is excerpted from Jia’s interview with Greenpeace:

Greenpeace: What inspired you to make this film?

Jia: I myself have lived my life mostly in two areas, one of which is Shanxi Province. Shanxi is an energy [industry intensive] area. I started noticing the smog issue in the 1990s, but back then there was no such a word as “smog.” I just felt that the air became really terrible. Dust was flying all over the place, making people’s everyday lives extremely inconvenient. Then I came to live in Beijing. Smog has became an important issue in people’s lives here, especially in the winter.

Parents walk primary school students to school amid thick haze in Chiping county, Shandong province
Parents walk their children to school amid thick haze in Chiping county in Shandong province.
Image: Reuters/China Daily

The characters are meant to show how no one gets to be different when it comes to smog, no matter what jobs we do, it is still a problem we all face. I wanted to raise the society’s environmental awareness through this, get people to pay attention to the issue of smog, and find ways to solve it.

The film has several scenes that made me take pause. For example, the one where a boy is doing back flips or where a couple is kissing in front of of chimneys. What’s behind those scenes?

One thing that fascinated and shocked me the most was the fact that even on smoggy days, people still lived their lives as usual. For example, when the Air Quality Index hit 200 or 300, and the air turned opaque or gray, I still saw people dancing, young people still hanging out. Everyone was doing what they would normally be doing.

On the other hand, it was also a pretty sentimental situation. In such bad air pollution where people should be wearing masks outdoors, there was still a woman eating youtiao [Chinese deep-fried dough strips] outside, another old lady dancing around, and a little kid playing football, rolling here and there. You realize that no matter what the circumstances or plight, the charm and fascination of life itself still exists. I was quite touched by that.

A visitor is silhouetted at an observatory tower during a polluted day in Beijing January 15, 2015. Beijing issued its first smog alert of 2015 on Tuesday. Stagnant and humid air has aggravated the city's air pollution, causing the smog to linger, according to Xinhua News Agency. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT)
An observer at an observatory in Beijing.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The theme of the film is “the people under the smog.” How did you tell stories following this theme?

The two families bring out a collective image. In the film, there is this little boy. He obviously has some respiratory issues caused by the air pollution. This leads to the unveiling of the same situation happening to a lot of the children in his school. We saw lots of similar reports in our research. For example, in the surrounding area of Shijiazhuang, I was shocked by the photos in many of the village clinics. They were all little kids and they all had to receive treatment for respiratory infection when winter came. Meanwhile, in Beijing, kids wore masks to go to school and so did the parents when they went to pick up their kids after school.

There a sense of fantasy or illusory beauty in the film.

J: When nature becomes like this, it is surreal. When we were kids, blue skies and white clouds were something we took for granted in our lives. When I was studying in Beijing, every afternoon I’d look toward the west from the sports ground of Beijing Film Academy and see the West Mountain and the fiery clouds across the sky above it. Later on, I became busier with work that I stopped paying attention to nature. As time went by, eventually, I noticed how the sky had often been opaque like this.

Sometimes we joke about how it is easy to fix everything except for the air when you want to shoot a film set in the 90s or the 1980s. We can make the actors wear costumes from the 1980s, and sing songs from the 1980s, but what do we do without the air from the 1980s?

Members of a local short film club wearing masks and dressed in costumes of Chinese fairies pose for photographs with placards which read "Say no to smog, return to me fairyism", during an event to raise awareness of air pollution, at a park in Handan, Hebei province
“Say no to smog, return to me fairyism,” read signs held by members of a film club in Hebei province.
Image: Reuters/China Daily

What was your biggest challenge while shooting?

Actually, the scouting part consumed a lot of our time. When visting the surrounding areas of Beijing, we went to Tianjin first, and then turned back to go to Baoding, Shijiazhuang and on to the Xingtai and Handan side. During the scouting trips, I felt what I was looking for was not only the smoggy environments, but also the poetry hiding behind the lives of people there, perhaps poetry of sadness, or anxiety.

At the same time, we needed to find the kind of spatial structure, for example one that links the power plants and the fields, and power plants and the mountains, with human beings, bringing out more aesthetic perception. I don’t want to make this film to threaten people or make them feel scared after they watch it. I hope I can move the audience emotionally, inspire a kind of consciousness and together push society as a whole to change this.