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Above The Dust – Film Review

3 min read

Still Courtesy - The Match Factory

Sixth-generation filmmaker has an infamous history with 's censorship network. His notable track record for breaking state policy began in the early 2000s when his superb Beijing Bicycle was submitted to the without prior authorization from China's National Film Bureau. The film eventually garnered a spot within the festival's competition slate, where it received mass critical success and international recognition for the picture's earnest depictions of disenfranchised youth. The Chinese censors, on the other hand, were less than impressed by Wang's rule-breaking method. It took nearly three years for Beijing Bicycle to finally screen in its homeland. Since then, Wang has been carefully evading the strikes of homespun suppression; quietly emerging as one of China's most vital filmmaking talents over the past two decades. His latest film entitled Above the Dust repeats history in a strangely metaphorical manner — as Wang surreptitiously submitted his feature for festival contention without the prior approval of China's National Film Bureau.

There is an insatiable irony to the conflicting situation, as Wang's latest behaves as a metaphysical time-travel story; indebted to his country's unique cultural failures. Adapted from Li Shijiang's short story Grandpa's Trick, Wang's trademarks as a renegade auteur are once again brought to the forefront of his unconventional coming-of-age saga. With Above the Dust, Wang utilizes the subjective perspective of ten-year-old Wo Tu, as his adolescent eyes are confronted by China's tormented political past. Wang takes direct aim at our current generation's historical obliviousness, as Wo Tu continuously depends on the plight of materialism over the languid history of his family's past. Wang's social criticisms are made evidently clear with his incorporation of The Great Leap Forward; with subsequent flashes of famine and social decay gently clashing with the young boy's upbringing. 

Still Courtesy – The Match Factory

Above the Dust mischievously toils with the literal and the internal — framing the excavation of Wo Tu's family history through buried heirlooms and suppressed desires. The film is ultimately dedicated to the blue-collar populace who have unearthed familiar memories over the past few decades. Fear, pride, and death looms over the shoulders of China's desperate working class in Above the Dust. As a historical overview, Wang succeeds within his vast index of rich cultural references regarding Mao's agricultural policies and systemic failures. On the other hand, as a work of fiction, Above the Dust falters as an engaging intergenerational study. Wang's lack of a clear thesis obfuscates Wo Tu's motivations. The child's ignorant motives are kept one-note throughout the entirety of the film. Even at the cataclysmic finale, Wo Tu's emotional attachment to his homeland and ancestry is purposefully emotionless. As the film's driving force, Wang's obtuse protagonist diminishes the impact of the familiar tragedy on display. 

On an analytical plane, the deadpan critique on our generation's collective obliviousness is clever in concept. However, in practice, the screen direction fails to effectively communicate the anguished emotions of a broken bloodline. Above the Dust works as a surface-level examination of a family's distancing diaspora; whilst introducing the child's nescience as the film's primary intellectual drive. Themes of traditionalism and the clashing face of an evolving state enrapture the film's intricate commentary. The issue lies within Wang's beating cinematic heart — a narrative that fails to capture the same urgency and power of his pre-existing political works.   

Still Courtesy – The Match Factory
Above the Dust premiered in the Generation Kplus competition as part of the 74th Berlin Film Festival. The film is currently seeking international distribution.