Friday 1 May 2015

Angel of Nanjing (2015)

Directors: Frank Ferendo & Jordan Horowitz
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
Following one documentary with another, here's the picture that won the Best Documentary award at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, as well as the special Dr Sydney K Shapiro Humanitarian Award. The latter is more believable, as it does introduce us to an amazing character who has saved over three hundred lives in the last decade, but the former is a little harder to defend, given that it's a short seventy minute piece that focuses almost entirely on interviews with and footage of the man himself. He's Chen Si, who's a full-time employee at the Ping-An Logistics Co and a married man, but who has nonetheless spent a decade's worth of weekends patrolling the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China, attempting to stop people from jumping off it. This isn't an official position; he's just a good samaritan who doesn't believe that anyone has the right to take their own life. Yet he does so in an often high-handed manner that made me wish for some perspective from other sources, beyond his wife's restrained glances of disapproval.

There's no controversy in the background. The Yangtze is the longest river in Asia and it's been a key part of Chinese history and culture for thousands of years. The bridge over it in Nanjing is also important, as it links by rail the largest Chinese city, Shanghai, with the country's capital, Beijing. It's huge, with a span of over 5,000 feet and a height of 150. It also functions on two levels, one for rail and one for road; it carries 200 trains and 80,000 road vehicles every day. More pertinent to this film, it took from the Golden Gate in San Francisco a dubious title: the most popular suicide spot in the world. It makes sense, given that China counts for a full third of the world's suicides, a massive 290,000 of them every year, and it's easy to take a bus into Nanjing, walk onto the Yangtze River Bridge and leap off it, hitting the river hard enough to die instantly. Most of the suicides here are not of locals but people travelling into Nanjing from outside, bent on adding themselves to those grisly statistics.

The controversy arrives with Chen Si, a stocky man somewhat like a Chinese William Shatner. A religious man with a simple outlook on life, he seems blissfully unaware of the irony that he refuses to accept that anyone has the right to kill themselves while smoking like a chimney. He has no official standing to save people but chooses to do so anyway in ways that would shock trained crisis negotiators. Sometimes it's as simple an act as walking up to them, but sympathy isn't the first thing on his checklist. First he has to confront them and he often does so vehemently. We watch footage of him literally hauling people down from the walls physically. Outside China, he could be arrested for assault! In one amazing shot, he's busy talking a young man out of killing himself when he sees an old man trying the same thing a little further down the bridge; he pauses his attempts to save the one to grab the other, pull him away from the edge and almost literally throw him onto a passing bus to get him out of there.
His confrontations aren't just physical; most are verbal. He may have 'cherish life every day' on the back of his jacket, but he can be vicious with his words to get his point across. He even tells some folk to give him a chance and 'die if I can't help you'. He's been at this calling for ten years and he saves three out of every four he engages. The 80 or 90 he's failed clearly haunt him, to the degree that he goes on periodic drunken karaoke sessions because, in his own words, 'the heart is too crowded.' I'd have thought that he would have sought some kind of training over the years so that he could improve his success rate, but he thinks he has it figured out. He believes that he can tell within twenty metres whether someone's there to die or not. He analyses faces because they let him in on the secret. On one patrol, he accosts a woman as 'she has a face full of death'. This is hardly scientific but he has done some rough analysis of the types of suicides he encounters and how successful he is with each.

What most of this boils down to is more important to modern China than it is to Chen Si. Most people he encounters are there because of some sort of drastic change in their lives, not surprising given how fast and irrevocably China is changing today. It's a country where people still living a peasant lifestyle share cities with technological trendsetters, so it's easy for the unemployed to feel lost. Then there are abused husbands, trafficked girls, sweatshop workers; China's leading edge is moving forward quickly but it will take a long time indeed to drag its most needy citizens along with it. Certainly we recognise names that are dropped during the news footage that's scattered liberally around this film. One example is FoxConn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer with notorious factories in China, such as the one in Wuhan where dozens of employees packing XBox 360 consoles threatened to commit mass suicide over poor working conditions. There's a story in the why behind these suicides, but this film avoids it for the most part.

What we get is Chen Si and his three stages of saving people. After the initial confrontation, which often shocks them into opening up or falling apart, he offers sympathy, which in many instances is all that he has to provide. The most amazing revelation in the film for me wasn't tied to his work on the bridge, but his work away from it. Every eighth grade social book in the whole of China carries his name and phone number. Needless to say he gets a lot of calls. This very concept stuns me. This is a country which has a population of well ove a billion people, more than four times that of the US, but one man, with a wife and a full-time job, not to mention a suicide patrol on the bridge every weekend, is on the hook whenever a kid gets bullied or breaks up with their girlfriend. Most countries have a massively staffed organisation like the Samaritans to cope with the deluge of people who need a ear. China apparently has Chen Si. Talk about a heck of a lot of responsibility to put on one set of shoulders. No wonder he needs karaoke.
However this isn't particularly addressed in this film either. Fortunately, his third stage is, which is to help. With only seventy minutes to play with, there's not too much opportunity to delve deep, but we do get to meet some of the people he's saved and see what he did to follow up. Some are new, such as the woman with the 'face full of death' and the young man he has to pause saving to throw the old man on a bus. He finds out why they felt suicide was the answer and then addresses the root cause of their problem. She's afraid her husband doesn't love her, so Chen Si takes her out to eat at a cafe he brings many such people to, then adds in the husband to talk it out. This Chinese William Shatner obviously has dreams of being a Chinese Jerry Springer too, but real people don't act like a television show. The young man wanted to end it all because he can't find a job, so Chen Si finds him one with a single phone call. He's an electrician, so Chen Si finds him work as one, with room, board and a wage. Now he's the Chinese Oprah Winfrey too.

Given that the film is shot with a loose, often annoyingly handheld camera, it's not surprising that it often feels like a reality show. I found that a little unworthy for a man with such achievements to his credit. This is clearly pro-Chen Si and doesn't want to raise concerns about his motivations or his methods, which is a shame, but I can't understand why the filmmakers didn't want to delve further beneath the surface even from his perspective. Surely they could have spent more time with the people he saved, especially given that he hosts a big meal at Christmas every year and a bunch of them show up regularly. One was saved back in 2006, struggling with loans to finance a new business while dealing with a daughter stricken with leukemia; Chen Si may have begun as his saviour, but became a confidante, a confessor and a ready and willing ear. I'd have liked more of their relationship and other similar relationships that he's cultivated. I'd have liked to find out how he can do frequent follow up on three hundred people in his spare time.

In fact, while I was entertained and educated by this film, it did leave me with a lot more questions than answers. It felt incomplete, not just because of its skimpy length (a minute shorter and it wouldn't count as a feature in many markets) but because there's so much that simply isn't here. Chen Si is showcased here like he's the star of a reality show, dominant through strength of charisma not only over the people he talks back from the edge but everyone else around him too. Bizarrely for a film about him, I wanted a lot less of Chen Si and a lot more of those others: his wife chief among them, along with the cafe owner, his boss and the other volunteers. How about the authorities who have to realise that an amateur does much better than they do. I especially wanted to hear from many more of the people he saved over the years, whether they show up for the Christmas party or not. The good news is that there are over three hundred of them; the bad news is that they're mostly not in this film and that's a big problem.

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