Saturday, April 4, 2009

HKIFF Film review 影評: Timber Gang 木幫, Survival Song 小李子

Director: Yu Guangyi 于廣義 (Simplified Chinese: 于广义)
Length: 90 mins, 94 mins

Year: 2006, 2008

Sometimes the best films are made at places that the director knows inside out. This is the case for Yu Guangyi, a man without prior filmmaking training or experience, who has created two award-winning documentaries capturing old, impoverished lifestyles in the face of rapid social change in China.


Yu was raised in Heilongjiang province 黑龍江 in Northern China, and only left at 26. A graduate at the Chinese Academy of Art 中國美術學院 and working as a woodblock print painter, he returned home after 20 years in December 2004, following a group of loggers trekking up the Changbai Mountains 長白山 to cut down trees throughout the winter.

Largely observational, Timber Gang documents the harsh climate and working conditions that the loggers, many of whom Yu knew personally in his childhood, face while trying to make a living. We observe their joyfulness displayed in their opening ritual to the 'Mountain God' slowly dissipating, as their manual labour consumes their 4 months in the wilderness. The primitive working practices take toll on the loggers themselves, who resort to the questionable fire cupping treatment (拔罐), and the horses they use to carry the logs.

Though shot on grainy digital video (don't expect the Discovery Channel treatment), Yu manages to capture some striking scenes. The cutting up of the horses' corpses may be an example of the loggers' resourcefulness, but seeing their sadness suggest that they treat them on equal terms as human colleagues. The poetic ending of death and birth warps into cruel irony when juxtaposed with the end titles, as we are informed that logging is no longer allowed in the area in order to make way for a reservoir.


Yu's attempt to trace the loggers results in Survival Song, which is not so much a sequel as a separate story. There are more scenic images, and the video quality has improved, but the human drama is even more intimate and pronounced.

It's October 2006, and with the construction of the reservoir it means villages are flooded and relocation necessary. Mr. Han, who Yu knew since army service and once a worker at the Forestry Ministry, lives in an abandoned lodge, relying on illegal hunting and poaching to feed her wife, a cat and two dogs. Xiao Lizi, fired from his job, returns from hiding and stays at Han's home. Their house is 15km away from the reservoir and there are no neighbours within a 5km radius. Loggers occasionally visit, but essentially they're living in the middle of nowhere.

If Timber Gang is a portrait of men at work, then Survival Song shows a family's daily struggle to live. We're not seeing any feats of men conquering (or defeated) by nature, but rather Han's disappointment and resilience, his desire to sleep under a roof and get on with life.

Curiously, Survival Song's centre gradually shifts towards Xiao, a character part quirky and part disturbing. The peculiar relationship between Han and Xiao feels like a buddy movie at times, with Xiao being the useless/helpless partner that gets the laughs. But the 'third act' (if that's an appropriate term for a documentary) reveals there's more strength to him than we suppose.

Yu's involvement within Survival Song is greater, simply because there's less characters (46 in Timber Gang) to work with. We get oddities such as Xiao holding an imaginary microphone and singing a pop song. But the revealing parts come from Han himself. Frustrated by his lowly existence, Han launches tirades questioning his purpose in life, attacking corrupt officials and even the Communist Party. This, combined with the unfortunate turn of events later on, leaves us with a man and his environment being left behind in China's rush towards modernisation.

(N.B. In the post-screening Q&A, Yu said that Xiao is currently a road construction worker living in a normal family, and Han is now single and living with a friend, fulfilling a housewife role.)

Timber Gang and Survival Song were shown in the HKIFF.

Simplified Chinese articles on Timber Gang and Survival Song