Review: Life in the shadow of Jade Dragon Mountain

THE TOWN of Lijiang, in south-western China, lies beneath the snow-capped peak of Jade Dragon Mountain. Nearby the Golden Sand River pushes its way through the fairy-tale steeps of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The names, and the ancient panorama of low tiled roofs, interrupted here and there by the odd willow and aspen, give the town a fabulous aspect. But not everything has an alien enchantment. In the house of Mr Mu, a local pork butcher, a young girl has assumed the Fainting Monkey posture to get out of going to school. When the doctor suggests a course of acupuncture she swiftly adopts the Cheerful Gazelle position. That Chinese people are squeamish about acupuncture was not the least of the revelations contained in the wonderful opening episode for Phil Agland's Beyond the Clouds (C4).

His film started off as small-town storytelling, a Chinese Middlemarch centred round the characters of Doctor Tang and Mr Mu, an amiable figure who fleshed out in front of your eyes. He teases the locals in the barbershop, moans about his wife and boasts about his acupuncture treatment to two carpenters he's employing to do some building. In most documentaries real people can seem less substantial than imaginary ones - they have no motive for tidy self-revelation - but Mr Mu already has the solidity of a fictional character, a sense that was emphasised by the way Agland began the film as a social comedy, concentrating on the tight, warm banter of the town.

His film also proved again, if it still needs proving, that subtitles can deliver a small miracle when used as an anthropological device. They are not only technically preferable to dubbing but also ethically superior - allowing a people to speak for themselves without intervention. Dubbing, or a paraphrased translation, literally takes the words out of people's mouths - subtitles concede to them their powers of intonation and subtlety. In this respect Charlotte Ashby, the translator and associate producer, deserves credit for translations that were idiomatic without ever being embarrassing. When Dr Tang's wife laughingly confesses 'We're old fogeys', you somehow trusted her to have got as close as she could to the Chinese original, even while you wondered how a society so respectful of age had come by the concept.

Agland's film started in enchantment - a vision of clean streets and ducks in sparkling roadside streams, a world where the advent of capitalism doesn't mean McDonald's or Coca-Cola but a street-vendor tracing exquisite animal shapes in sugar syrup for the local children. But he wasn't under any illusions about the society he was looking at. The film turned darker in the middle, hingeing round an ambiguous sequence in which the local television news was recorded early in the morning for that evening's transmission. There are two explanations for such a relaxed attitude to deadlines: either the pace of life is so unstressed that it doesn't matter anyway, or your news is dictated by the state, so events won't make much difference.

What you saw on the bulletin - reports of record crops and admonitory film of two murderers being led off to execution - raised the presence of the state for the first time. The doctor's wife was high up in the local street committee, responsible for pasting up encouraging posters and enforcing the one-child policy (in a neat scene Agland caught the current paradoxes of China - 'Study Mao Thought' ordered the poster in the foreground, 'Honey for sale]' yelled a vendor nearby). And when Mr Mu's nephew was killed in a street brawl, you learnt that China has both juvenile violence and hospital bills. The gossip turns melancholy and anxious.

Last night the fable ended poised between modern and ancient China - with the police interrogating three youths and the murdered boy's family forced to bury his ashes outside the graveyard, grieving over again because they know his spirit won't rest. Agland, who spent five years in Lijiang preparing the film, watches it all with the eyes of a resident, not a tourist.