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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style