Daily | Locarno 2014 | J.P. Sniadecki’s THE IRON MINISTRY

'The Iron Ministry'

‘The Iron Ministry’

Back in April, Jordan Cronk wrote here in Keyframe about the work of J.P. Sniadecki, a filmmaker and anthropologist who teaches at Cornell and is closely affiliated with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Noting that he’s also “been living and working itinerantly in China” for the past several years, Jordan writes: “His films, mostly observational documentaries influenced equally by contemporary Chinese mixed-media and the European ethnographic movement of yesteryear, are serene, highly tactile excavations of far-flung locales. But in forgoing the temptation to exploit the exotic elements of his surroundings, Sniadecki has quietly painted a portrait of modern day China as a diverse, demanding, and ever-evolving country, one occasionally at odds with its historical, industrial, and sociological makeup, yet nonetheless alive with cultural nuance and endurance.”

The Iron Ministry premiered in competition in Locarno last week and, in a dispatch to the House Next Door, Michael Pattison notes that “the focus is upon the claustrophobic clutter of China’s economy-class train carriages that rattle along one of the largest rail networks in the world. Filming between 2011 and 2013, Sniadecki perhaps had too much material for his own good, and the process of trimming it all into a cohesive whole has resulted in something at once suitably chaotic and frustratingly unwieldy—but it’s sometimes a marvelous and frequently alarming snapshot of the country’s militantly upheld class divide.”

Elaborating at Filmuforia, Michael Pattison suggests that “watching this film makes the flashily fanciful allegories of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer look decidedly less fantastical than they first seemed. The future is already here. So, what of it? What, indeed, do we make of the many complaints, anxieties, desires and dreams expressed here, by the young and by the old, by the shoeshines and other quick-buck hopefuls? While Sniadecki’s access-all-areas approach is commendable, the anything-goes feel seems to be a matter of editorial indiscipline rather than of premeditation.”

For the Hollywood Reporter‘s Neil Young, though, The Iron Ministry is an “outstanding, semi-experimental documentary” and Sniadecki’s “most accessible effort since Foreign Parts (2010), which he directed with subsequent Leviathan co-creator Véréna Paravel. While lacking the groundbreaking feel of that fishing-boat saga, The Iron Ministry likewise benefits from superb sound design from audio wizard Ernst Karel and at times conjures a similarly stimulating, occasionally disorienting sensory barrage…. Although not actually a product of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab responsible for Leviathan and last year’s Locarno success Manakamana, The Iron Ministry shares the Lab’s trademark aesthetic of uninflected, unadorned, you-are-there neo-verite immediacy.”

Sniadecki, “fluent in Mandarin, alternates between engaging with passengers and shooting what he sees in a closely observational style,” writes Variety‘s Jay Weissberg. “Nothing is directly identified, neither locale nor timeframe, and the editing has no geographic logic. Instead, Sniadecki offers a formally controlled look at the range of classes, the implied changes wrought by China’s economic boom, and the interactions particular to train travel. Refreshingly, Sniadecki allows the film—or rather, some passengers—to engage in politics, from the rights of minorities to economic pressures. While cerebral in intent and planning, the pic doesn’t feel overly straitjacketed by theory and offers unexpected moments of amusement.”

“Far more critical of its setting than many of the Sensory Ethnographic Lab projects with which it has a kinship, The Iron Ministry turns the chaos of modern China into dense, frantic poetry,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “It only really suffers when the subject is bluntly realized, including one bit where a woman explains a 7th century myth involving the invasion of iron monsters who destroy the world—and notes, of course, that with the ever-expanding train, this has already happened.”

Update, 8/23: “In spite of the noise, the exhaustion, stress and hunger (or maybe just because of them), Sniadecki finds a whole lot of different interlocutors willing to give their opinion on issues such as religious and ethnic minorities, housing costs, birth-control, Tibet Autonomous Region, emigration,” notes Michael Guarneri at Criticwire:

Some are satisfied with the Party’s policies or at least try to “look at the bright side” of “the Chinese dream,” some are strongly critical and ask for more transparency and citizens’ direct participation, while others don’t care much about politics and just “want to be in love like Americans.” Capitalism might be a sort of faceless evil that tries to impose its bidding—considering the historical liaison between the expansion of railroad, industry, trade, cultural homologation, exploitation and genocide, “Towards Tibet the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” could be a good alternative title for Sniadecki’s documentary—but what’s engaging about The Iron Ministry is precisely that it shows that it is not so easy to break people’s will and transform them into a sort of ticket-purchasing brainwashed cattle.

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