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Daily Drip

Here’s 6 Documentaries on Modern China You Need to Watch

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It’s simply not possible to talk about China’s independent documentary scene without mentioning director Du Haibin. Born in 1972 in Shaanxi province, Northwest China, Du started working in documentary filmmaking and creative photography in 1998.

Most of his works document the lives of ordinary Chinese people in the context of rapid urbanization and significant economic disparity. That makes him a typical member of China’s sixth-generation filmmakers, alongside Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai. These creatives were born in the 1960s and ’70s and often feature urban China and marginalized individuals in their works.

“I feel a responsibility to record people’s lives fairly and objectively during these times of change,” Du said previously in a media interview. “Every time I rewatch my work, it feels like rereading some very old books. [It’s] very special.”

Now, RADII readers can watch six of his documentaries on Asian movie-focused streaming service Montage with a 20% discount using the code RADIICHINA. Below, we introduce the films.

Along the Railway (2000)

alongside the railway montage

A still from Alongside the Railway. Courtesy of Montage

This documentary profiles a group of people dwelling alongside the railway in landlocked Shanxi province, located in China’s northern region.

They wander in the city to collect and sell scraps for a living. At night, they come back and sleep along the tracks. Many of them struggle with childhood trauma, mental illness, and job loss. But still, they haven’t lost hope.

Beautiful Men (2005)

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A group picture of drag dancers. Courtesy of Montage

Beautiful Men explores the lives of three drag dancers in the city of Chengdu, Southwest China. It follows the dancers on and off stage and depicts their struggles as gay men in China.

The men gather every night in a bar to perform a drag show, regardless of the challenges they’re facing in their lives. The film won Best Documentary Award at the Busan International Film Festival 2005.

Stone Mountain (2006)

A group of migrant workers comes to a stone pit on the outskirts of Beijing in support of rapid urban expansion and infrastructure construction. Far away from their homes in Northeast China, these quarriers spend years working and living together. While toiling on the mountainside, they become a family and support each other.

Umbrella… (2007)

Unlike his earlier films, which focus more on individual stories, Du tries to capture a bigger picture in Umbrella: economic growth and inequality in modern rural China.

This observational documentary is divided into five parts, each featuring a different social group: factory workers, students, soldiers, merchants, and peasants. With more opportunities opening up for people from rural areas, some have prospered in the country while others are still struggling.

1428 (2009)

This film is arguably Du’s most well-known work.

Ten days after the Great Sichuan Earthquake, Du and his team travel to the affected area and document the aftermath of the major disaster. He manages to film scenes and individual stories not shown on China’s official news streaming sites.

1428 has won several awards, including Best Documentary at Venice International Film Festival 2009. This is the first time that the film is available on video-on-demand (VoD) in the US.

A Young Patriot (2015)

Xiao Zhao is a 19-year-old patriot and a huge fan of Mao Zedong. He dreams of joining the army in a restive border region to serve the country. However, he gradually becomes a cynic over the four years that Du follows him. The reason? Watch the film here to find out. And don’t forget to use the code RADIICHINA to get 20% off.

Cover photo a still from A Young Patriot. Courtesy of Montage

Lu Zhao
Lu Zhao is a bilingual and multimedia journalist with a focus on human interest and social issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, UPI, SupChina, Pandaily, Chicago Reporter, and other publications.