Jia Zhangke’s Lüliang: Illegal Mining and Accident Coverups as a Way of Life

Just as 2014 was coming to an end, film director Jia Zhangke’s Shanxi home “city” of Lüliang 吕梁 was again in the headlines for massive violation of mine safety standards and operating countless small collieries without proper licensing or inspection. (New York Times, Dec. 28. 2014). The scale of the arrests and investigations seems to be unprecedented, but the publicity and fines and even imprisonments are nothing new. Nor will the “clean sweep” end the inspection misdemeanors and the litany of explosions and floods that has dogged the private, small-scale mines of the sub-region since the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, given Jia’s commitment to merging film and rapportage – or seeming rapportage, his first major film, “Platform” (2004) opens with a kind of mini-take on a coal mine disaster story presumably unfolding just as the film was being scripted.

Characteristically, the place and scale of the disaster, even how it occurred, are left murky at best. All that is clear is that there has been some kind of tunnel collapse and that a number (how many is not stated) of villagers working in the pit have been killed: the seemingly farcical county (xian) song-and-dance troupe’s performance of a skit enacting the excitement of elder peasants on a train to visit Mao’s home town of Shaoshan is in fact part of a “consolation” theatrical (weiwen yanchu) of the sort that troupes of its ilk were originally constituted to perform. That the audience of fellow-villagers seems more interested in gossip than ceremony or even grief suggests that they have seen far too many of these ceremonies to be deeply shaken.

Or is it just cynicism? Just barely within the lens covering the “choo-choo” dance one espies a(nother) thumbprint of early Deng Xiaoping era de-collectivization/privatisation hoopla cross-commenting on the village or township mine accident: a giant “plan” (guihuatu) of the “new” village that the mine’s prosperity (and tax yield) will pay for in some form or another. From the naked prominence of that ambitious blueprint for the future, one is probably to assume that the mine will continue to operate.

So the veneer of cheerfulness and even rowdiness – reinforced by the absurdity of the performance itself (featuring teenagers as grandmoms and granddads all keyed up about a visit to the dead Chairman’s hill-country home) – becomes a kind of defense against any degree of political optimism.

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