I found a different China in these three movies. A deeply human one. A familiar one.
Manufactured Landscapes was the first time I'd seen the work of Edward Burtynsky. His photographs of Industrial Landscapes are simply stunning.
Here's the plot synopsis from All Movie Guide:
Documentarian Jennifer Baichwal's latest film, Manufactured Landscapes, represents a multifaceted effort. The picture ostensibly provides a thought-provoking investigation of photographer Edward Burtynsky's legacy, with its aesthetic studies of industrial landscapes. But Baichwal's documentary probes deeper than a mere surface-level glimpse of Burtynsky's life and work. It uses the topic of Burtynsky as a springboard, segueing, from there, into a protracted exploration of "the aesthetic, social and spiritual dimensions of industrialization and globalization." Whereas Burtynsky's photographs reveal human beings dwarfed by the massive industrialized landscape that surrounds them, Baichwal (much as Louis Malle did in his Humain, trop Humain) sheds a light on the tedium and monotony suffered by workers who are assigned small components of huge manufacturing processes, and must endure the repetitive work that it entails. She and cinematographer Peter Mettler also travel to China and Bangladesh - the corner of the world that serves as a destination for much of the west's industrial waste - and convey the devastating impact that corporate disposal makes on indigenes - such as the two young men who must wade around, waist deep, in toxic sludge while tearing ships apart with their bare hands. The picture thus raises some significant and sobering questions about the impact that we, as humans, make on our environment.
In a similar vein is the movie The World by Jia Zhang-ke. It's unlike any other Chinese movie I'd seen before, both in style and content, and is another wonderful introduction to modern China.
As Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his review:
The title of Jia Zhang-ke's 2004 masterpiece, The World -- a film that's hilarious and upsetting, epic and dystopian -- is an ironic pun and a metaphor. It's also the name of the real theme park outside Beijing where most of the action is set and practically all its characters work. "See the world without ever leaving Beijing" is one slogan for the 115-acre park, where a monorail circles scaled-down replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, London Bridge, Saint Mark's Square, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramids, and even a Lower Manhattan complete with the Twin Towers. Extravagant kitsch like this may offer momentary escape from the everyday, but Jia is interested in showing the everyday activities needed to hold this kitsch in place as well as the alienation in this displaced world -- and therefore in the world in general, including the one we know.
And finally there's Blind Shaft. I'd describe it as a Coen Brothers remake of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre set in modern China.
The Critics at Rotten Tomatoes loved it.
With a suspenseful plotline that keeps viewers glued to the screen awaiting each new development in this harsh tale of miners and murder in northern China, BLIND SHAFT depicts desperate men who will do anything for money. Controversial in its commentary on China's social problems, with characters poisoned by greed and infidelity having abandoned their families and lost any sense of dignity, the story is anything but simple. Mid-way through, the film it takes an endearing turn that changes the plotline into a true morality tale, which is followed up by a completely unexpected ending.