Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review – Game Theory

January 12, 2012

Game Theory – China, 2010

When the dust has settled and time has finally given us the necessary perspective to correctly assess all that has transpired, what will we make of China’s rise in stature? Will we view it solely as a great accomplishment, one that heralded in a better way of life for millions of people who had previously been impoverished? Or will we view it as a time in which many companies prospered at the expense of workers, safety standards, and the environment, all in the name of market expansion and the pursuit of lower costs? Whatever the final verdict is, no analysis will be complete without an acknowledgement of events such as the ones presented in Wang Qingren’s excellent, thought-provoking documentary Game Theory, which adroitly presents both the drawbacks and benefits of China’s ongoing drive toward modernity and economic prosperity.

The film presents viewers with two incidents so harsh that it is all too easy to miss the fact that what results from each of them is both stunning and beautiful. In addition, they have the potential to bring economic benefits for decades to come. The question viewers much ask themselves is whether the ends justify the means. In addition, if what we see is indeed accurate, there is a growing resistance to government dogma in China, which all too often couches government actions in nationalistic terms designed to remove the necessity for further explanation. Simple put, one is expected to sacrifice for the nation. However, it appears this line of reasoning no longer works. This is not to say that officials don’t try to appeal to these nationalistic sentiments; it’s just that people are much more likely to wonder aloud why the nation’s prosperity has to come at their expense.

Game Theory documents the struggles of two villages near Beijing from 2005 to 2009. The first, Liyuan Village, was demolished in 2003, and as the film opens, we learn that the residents are still waiting for compensation. Later, we learn that what little money they were offered was put into a bank account that they cannot access due to concerns relating to social instability. Someday someone will have to explain that one to me. The second village is Maying Village, and its fate was decided the day Shenzhen Huawei Technologies announced plans to build a factory in the exact spot that the village occupies. What transpires is a fascinating and frustrating look at a grieved community seeking a small measure of justice for the wrongs that were done to them and a second community struggling to understand why they must leave the homes they worked so long to make their own.

Throughout the film, there are frequent reminders that heroism sometimes comes in small acts, the kind that would likely be missed if a camera were not there to capture them. After all, how else can we describe a man like Zhang Lian-zhong but as an unsung hero?, When the film opens, Zhang, a villager from the former Liyuan Village, is living in an illegal house and taking care of his elderly parents, both of whom are bedridden. One of them frequently breaks into tears, and the other has developed a drinking problem. For both of them, the future represents uncertainty and fear, and one particular conversation between mother and son captures this perfectly. As for Zhang, he watches as nearby houses are demolished and can only wonder when authorities will come for his. And yet he perseveres. The film also introduces us to the party secretary of Maying Village, Zhao Yo-cang, a man who is caught between two competing responsibilities. As a party official, he must enforce the development plan, yet as a resident, he also understands the feelings of the soon-to-be displaced farmers. And so, he makes what is probably the only choice he can: He leads by example. We may disagree with some of Secretary Zhao’s actions in the film, but that in no way lessens the courage it takes to sacrifice something you have worked so hard for. And one look at the face of Zhao’s wife is enough to know just how much pride the two of them took in the life they had built together. In one of the film’s most stirring moments, we witness an average villager named Chao Chun-dong rise from obscurity to challenge the Committee of the Demolition and Relocation. His reasoning is impeccable, and watching the committee become frustrated and respond to him in repetitive patriotic generalities is one of the few joyful moments in the film.

It’s clear from the very beginning of the film that this is a game that the government will ultimately win, for they have both power and money on their side. However, as the film goes along, we witness the growing power of the poor and the willingness of courts to hear their cases and seriously consider their grievances. And we witness both an embrace of democratic principles on a local level and a willingness to speak out on the part of those that the powerful are sometimes said to simply push aside. This is indeed progress, and it should be recognized as such, despite the fact that so many have lost so much.

In one scene, police and government officials watch as a family’s house is demolished right in front of them. The family’s pleas for time and mercy fall on deaf ears, and tears flow rapidly as their hopes for a better future crumble along with the place they developed and called home. I don’t know what it says about society that people have become so desensitized to suffering that they can be completely emotionless as they destroy everything that people have worked so long for. In another scene, a man tries to explain to the Committee just how much work he has put into his house and the amount of compensation he feels is warranted. The Committee members just laugh.

Game Theory is a difficult film to watch, and it ends on a very down note. However, what we see in the film is also unforgettable. We see that acts of betrayal can sometimes be understandable, that progress can indeed come under the worst of circumstances, and that that the loss of one’s community can have devastating effects on one’s physical and emotional state. And yet I don’t find myself cursing those responsible, and I don’t find myself blaming the quest for progress and modernity. Instead, I find myself wondering a simple and obviously rhetorical question: Couldn’t it have been done differently? And for some reason, what I’ve seen in Game Theory has given me a slight bit of optimism that it will be in the future. Game Theory is one of the most powerful films of 2010. (on DVD in Region 3)

4 stars

*Game Theory is in Mandarin with English subtitles. The subtitles change a little too quickly at times.

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