See the full programme of the Open City Documentary Festival here
At first glance Beijing Ants sounds interesting and relevant to a UK audience. The blurb suggests a film about the absurdities of the Beijing housing market. Parallels to our drizzly islands are obvious. The name implies it will be an overview of these issues for those living in the densely populated city. But the film by Ryuji Otsuka is no more than a long video diary of moving house. A few still photographs during the end credits attempt to add a little context, but they are tacked on as though in response to criticism that the film is just a long video diary of moving house. These images recount complaints that are no doubt deeply upsetting and unfair for the people involved. However when the information is just flashed on the screen as an afterthought it is hard for an international audience to feel strongly about whether or not a property developer provided as many car parking spaces as they promised.
The film starts with a long (over ten minute) shot of a violent argument. Clearly the camera is hidden – we see out from behind a pot plant as a landlord argues with the filmmaker and his wife about a rent increase. Insults such as I hope your child will become a beacon of selfishness are traded. Presumably we should be appalled at the rent increase from 2000 to 2600 RMB. It is a high percentage but it is hard to see the new price as outrageous when the new apartments that the filmmaker and his and child then go to view are even more expensive. The film is not pointing out the unaffordable nature of the rents; one of the family’s negotiating points is that they will pay the entire next year in advance.
What it does show are the dangers of contract-less ‘agreements’, the pre-health-and-safety nature of the Chinese removal business and our naturally money-grasping nature which appears to come to the fore in the property world.
The filming is of the wobbly, out-of-focus style where you get as many shots of the sky and people’s stomachs as anyone’s face. Commonly associated with quickly taken footage in war-torn districts, the content here is shots of the filmmaker’s baby and wife and confrontations with landlords and removal men and becomes wearing.
Anyone who has moved house knows that it is stressful and unpleasant. It is bad enough when you have to go through it yourself. It is not necessary to spend 88 minutes of your life reliving it vicariously. The film adds no comment or context. The director has done well to piece together a film from his own experiences, but it does not comment on any wider issues. The film’s inclusion in a major documentary film festival is surprising.