Stephen Maing's muckraking documentary High Tech, Low Life has a wonderful subject and sublime execution despite its awful, cloying title -- Maing constructs and presents intertwined biographical profiles of two extraordinary Chinese men who have devoted their lives to social improvement via Internet blogging activities: twentysomething Zhou "Zola" Shuguang and 57-year-old Zhang "Tiger Temple" Shihe. At the outset of the picture, Zola confesses that he's only interested in the Internet for easy celebrity and self-aggrandizement, and claims to harbor no innate understanding of what "journalism" entails, but his activities and instincts suggest the opposite: Blogging with his camera in hand, he manages to unearth and spread to the masses news of an appalling national scandal involving a young girl raped by a man with government ties. She was then thrown off a bridge to her death -- an event that Chinese officials unconvincingly masked as a suicide. Meanwhile, Tiger Temple also stirs up federal indignation by interviewing, photographing, and filming hundreds of citizens across China who have been strong-armed into the countryside by authorities -- "sent-down" residents coerced out of urban dwellings and into conditions barely suitable for animals, rife with abject poverty. Unsurprisingly, as the reporters’ activities escalate, the government catches wind of their grassroots activism and doesn't respond favorably.
Foundationally speaking, the very existence of this movie represents something of a miracle. Although funded by American institutional resources, notably San Francisco's Independent Video and Television Service and its core series, PBS's POV, the film bears all the hallmarks of an observer working undercover in China, but with the requisite knowledge of an insider. The documentary slips into the Communist nation and provides -- in Chinese -- an exhaustive visual study of events that we can't quite believe we're witnessing on camera. These include not simply an up-close observation of the atrocities that Zola and Temple uncover, but footage of an aggressive raid and arrest by Beijing police officials. Recalling similar techniques in Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove, we can only reason that Maing shot this footage covertly -- for how could it be obtained otherwise, sans immediate apprehension and reprisal? The results are as mesmerizing as one might expect.
Maing's narrative instincts are also superb: With an adroit hand, he etches out a character profile of each subject, and shifts between their stories with the fluidity and emotional involvement of a master novelist. There are many times throughout this documentary when we may ask questions (such as wondering, for example, whether Zola and Tiger have each obtained permission to post online about the people whose paths they cross) -- but more often than not, Maing demonstrates that he is several steps ahead of us: As soon as we have asked the question, the film gives us a satisfactory answer.
The picture is sociopolitically fascinating as well. China, of course, is a country full of contradictions, and Maing enables us to see through the most fundamental: the fact that the nation's leaders are somehow using economic modernization as a veil to mask grave social injustices. In addition, there’s the sobering realization that, despite the country's supposed strides toward democracy, its population is light years away from possessing the freedoms that North American citizens hold dear and sacred. And yet somehow, at the same time, the documentary treats China and its people with the utmost respect: Recalling Yung Chang's 2007 Up the Yangtze, it reflects a country of endless mystery, beauty, and elegance, which the director obviously reveres.
Maing is too hip and far too wise to even think of providing cookie-cutter solutions to the problems that he outlines on camera -- instead, he continually reminds us that no such easy answers are forthcoming. Paradoxically, however, the film's existence itself presupposes a solution by spreading worldwide awareness of the subjects it profiles and the crises they have brought to light. As such, this documentary needs to be seen, globally, by as many individuals as possible. leave a comment --Nathan Southern