Monday, April 15, 2013

Beijing Punk (now on video)

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

China will be owning and running everything pretty soon, so why not punk rock music as well? The ultimate form of musical rebellion in a Peoples Republic that, not too long ago, was a Maoist horror-show dictatorship close to North Korea in chilly doctrinaire-Marxist total control...? That's the come-on in Shaun Jefford's rockumentary, and an appealing one it is, though for me, anyway, the concept (and the deceptively sexed-up movie poster) is more interesting than the result.

On the eve of the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, Jefford and his shoestring film crew find a nascent punk-rock movement active in the Chinese metropolis, mostly centered around a rock club and tiny record labels managed by Western expatriates. Many of the punkers dwell in a downscale neighborhood called Tongzhou, and it is quite a revelation to be told this is one of those slum areas where one hears random gunfire at all hours. One did assume that the Forbidden City, even in these days of free-market "democracy" (or whatever it is our Chinese future masters got going over there for a government) kept tighter policing.

Jefford interviews Beijing's rebel rockers, in bands such as Snapline, P.K. 14, The Gar, Joyside and Demerit. These Asian folk typically reject the 12-hour robotic factory ethic of their countrymen and take defiant pride in the seediness of Tongzhou. Though one must hear the words of arch-punk Lei Jun, of the veteran combo Mi San Dao, when says he makes more money at music than his father earns as an eye doctor.

The music is an acquired taste, whilst one band, Hedgehog, has a loyal fandom thanks to Chinese males flocking to gigs to gawp at its rarity, a Meg White-like girl drummer. In general these punks, though sometimes drunk and defiant (and speaking an R-rated English vocabulary), still have a ways to go before descending to the cartoon level of decadence found in Penelope Spheeris' cult-classic THE DECLINE AND FALL OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION. Still, it is told to us that during the making of the film Jefford's cinematographer got severely ill on the local liquor and had to drop out entirely. 

That may or may not explain the somewhat ramshackle finished product in BEIJING PUNK - especially the sound. Even if raw production values in theory suit a punk rock doc (as in Don Lett's landmark Super 8mm THE PUNK ROCK MOVIE), it's still pretty annoying here. And it does seem a major oversight that the film doesn't speak to any of the conservative Chinese authorities who barely tolerate these punks (of course, they may disapprove of the entire premise of this film), or anyone with much musicology perspective.

The rockers seem to run out of things to say well before the picture's 70-minute run-time is past, and that seems to be the major problem I had with BEIJING PUNK. Still, in a fight with Shaolin monks I'd sure like a big dude like Lei Jun on my side. Yes, as if I'll ever afford a trip to the Far East, even if that's where the world's only job openings are. With all its drawbacks, Jefford can still point to this picture as proof that his camera (though not always with a cameraman) was there at the inception. Right before even punk-rock music got outsourced by Wall Street to the China, where it can be manufactured more cheaply. (2 1/4 out of 4 stars)

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