Credit: ND/NF / Film at Lincoln Center
by Ryan Swen Film

Singing in the Wilderness — Chen Dongnan

April 27, 2022

Chinese documentary has long been a vibrant and all too underseen area of filmmaking, even before the international recognition of masters like Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing. In reaction to the overt stylizations and lavish filmmaking of the Fifth Generation, which itself rejected the Cultural Revolution’s social realism, the Sixth Generation operated in a neo-realist fashion, skirting the lines of documentary in its use of non-actors and much more quotidian plots. Concurrently, full-fledged documentarians like Wu Wenguang and Yue Jiang began their own even more independent movement. The newest trend appears to be Chinese documentarians who received their education in the United States, making films resolutely about their native land while maintaining a certain distance in form and/or subject matter; Zhu Shengze is the foremost leader of this loose movement at present.

Another member is Chen Dongnan, who makes her feature-length debut with Singing in the Wilderness. The documentary, shot over close to a decade, follows the farming people of the Little Well Village in Fumin County of China’s Yunnan province. They belong to the A-Hmao subset of the Miao people, a historically oppressed and poor minority within China who were pushed to the mountaintops by the Han Chinese majority thousands of years ago. This village, in stark contrast to the vast majority of China, which mostly follows either atheism or folk religions, has embraced Christianity, and their church choir, conducted by Long Guangyuan, has become a backbone of the community. Once Zhang Xiaoming, the county propaganda minister, becomes enraptured by their untrained yet passionate singing, their rise to international fame begins, leading to appearances in Beijing and Lincoln Center, events which challenge the group’s identity in the face of government advertising and mandated subject matter. At the same time, the film follows two choir members as they embark on marriage: Zhang Yaping (referred to simply as Ping in the chyron), who has a volatile relationship with her husband from another, bigger village, and Wang Jiansheng (Sheng) who longs to become a preacher and chafes against the farming lifestyle and his arranged marriage.

Chen cannily ties all of these threads into a larger tapestry of the sweeping nature of China’s modernization and image creation that people like Jia have also captured so astutely. What makes this particular instance special is its specificity, in both the ethnic and religious aspects. Throughout, there is the implicit idea, never directly commented on by the villagers, of a certain exoticization: before their first performance, the villagers, who normally otherwise wear fairly modern clothing, are given traditional garb that emphasizes uniformity and tradition which, as a village elder observes in one of just two talking heads, has already mostly faded away: he sings part of a Miao ethnic song before sadly noting that he’s forgotten the rest of it, and that there are no more people who remember such songs.

Instead, the villagers find their identity in these songs which aren’t in their native language: Singing in the Wilderness, at least in its international releases, probably ought to note the many times where the film switches between A-Hmao and Mandarin: the former is used during most of the conversations between villagers, including in their urban settings, and the latter is used during the semi-common use of voiceover, the singing of songs (secular and non-secular alike), and official announcements; an especially notable recurring theme is Sheng’s use of Mandarin rather than A-Hmao during his sermons, presumably in an effort to be able to minister to a wider region of China than his immediate people.

This tension between the village and the wider world recurs without ever necessarily being used as a cudgel to emphasize the beauty of the former. While it is startling to see Europeans being led through a guided tour of the village, along with almost a shock-cut to promotional footage and a performance of “Mamma Mia” on China’s Got Talent, Chen does not solely rely on such wild extremes, instead carefully drawing out how each incursion relates to the villagers’ predicaments. This especially comes to the fore in the turbulent emotional journeys both Ping and Sheng go on; crucially they are both linked explicitly to Christianity and singing, two pursuits seen as incompatible with the prescribed means of life. Singing in the Wilderness, aside from decrying the corrupt aborted land development that drastically cut down on farming space, doesn’t aim to suggest that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but Chen’s faithful evocation of a resolutely modern type of struggle resounds with a clarity all its own.

Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2022 — Dispatch 2.