Friday, May 08, 2015

SFIFF58: The Iron Ministry

On Monday afternoon at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I saw The Iron Ministry, a film consisting entirely of footage shot aboard China's railway system between 2011 & 2013. The film is structured as if we were on one continuous train ride, & it's part cinematic poem & part observational documentary. The film begins with an eerie, abstract sequence consisting of the scraping sounds of the train & indistinct shapes rocking in darkness. In long takes, the camera moves through a wide range of environments on the trains, from overcrowded cars carrying farmers with baskets full of fresh meat & vegetables, to modern 1st class carriages with barely any passengers. In one scene, the camera wends its way through a car at floor level, so we can see the variety of footwear worn by riders. Another shot follows a broom as it sweeps passengers' trash into a huge mound.

The film has no commentary, but director J.P. Sniadecki captures small, telling vignettes. Early on, a motor-mouthed little boy delivers a brilliant, scatalogical parody of the train announcements. We witness a vaguely confrontational conversation between 2 Muslim & 2 Han Chinese men. A man without an ID, who seems to be an ethnic minority, is taken off the train. 2 women warily discuss salaries, jobs & age. Sometimes we hear Mr. Sniadecki off-camera speaking Mandarin as he interviews people directly. A friendly railroad employee is suddenly nonplussed when he learns his voice is being recorded. The general impression is of a society experiencing rapid change.

The festival screening was full, & I sat next to a Chinese-speaking couple. 2 people nearby me checked their cellphones during the movie.

§ The Iron Ministry
Director: J.P. Sniadecki
2014, China/USA, 83 mins.

§ 58th San Francisco International Film Festival
April 24, 2015   7:00 p.m.   Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
April 25, 2015   4:00 p.m.   Pacific Film Archive Theater
May 4, 2015   4:00 p.m.   Sundance Kabuki Cinemas


Michael Strickland said...

Sounds like "Snowpiercer" without Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton.

Axel Feldheim said...

I haven't seen it, but you might be right! There's one moment where the camera is pushed out of a train's dining car, but I'm surprised the director wasn't thrown off the trains constantly.