Credit: Levo Films
by Morris Yang Featured Film Horizon Line

Republic — Jin Jiang

July 11, 2024

Republics, as it were, are spaces of contradiction — the citizens’ collective supreme authority refracted through the figures of their representatives — whose political legitimacy remains perpetually contestable; democratic republics find themselves afflicted by indecision and chaos, while more authoritarian ones risk subsuming the people’s will under hollow categories of representation. In virtually all its blueprints, however, lies the vision of a utopian order bolstered by realizations of certain ideals: freedom, justice, equality, among others. These ideals attempt to resolve the aforementioned contradictions regarding power and sovereignty, and while they sometimes come close, most end up masking them. Americans, for example, don’t necessarily believe in the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation of “certain inalienable Rights” in practice, but they act and speak as if theory still held true, if it ever did.

Republic, Jin Jiang’s documentary situated across the pond in the bustle of Beijing, examines contradictions of a somewhat different sort, although the fundamental tension between theory and practice persists. Beijing, a capital of 22 million stretching over 6,300 square miles, finds its microcosm in six square meters of hippie territory occupied by one Li Eryang, self-styled leader of the film’s titular commune. To the extent that Li can be said to lead, it’s in his ostensible ownership of the cramped space — likely within an apartment complex, sans personal toilet — and his attempts at revolutionary charisma. This charisma, though, isn’t steeped in political rebellion; Li praises the ideological socialism espoused by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and decries (initially, at least) the tendency for artists to shun its strictures in favor of hedonistic individualism. But it serves as a personal justification nonetheless, insofar as ideological socialism has manifested uneasily alongside practical cut-throat capitalism for him and his peers.

The response of the Republic’s denizens to capitalism’s demands on them forms the crux of Jin’s observational work: shot on handheld and revealing virtually all sides of this cramped corner of the world, Republic quickly unravels the blind and fiery idealism of its pseudo-socialists who, while living hand-to-mouth in a repudiation of consumerist desire, nonetheless depend heavily on the system at large for survival. Debt-ridden from deferred credit payments and eking out a living, possibly through online gambling, Li and co. discuss drugs, Bob Dylan, and the drudgery of the mainstream nine-to-five whilst cooped up together, cooking impromptu meals and zoning out to the light guitar riffs of a more optimistic countercultural era. Their views waver and change over time; what is, at turns, a “Subculture Hub” and “Trashie Center” becomes, through the film’s runtime, a place of dormant cynicism. Conscious of the unsustainability of their lifestyle, not to mention the aimlessness of their endeavors soon made apparent, the groupies wander in and out of their muted state of affairs, neither too passionate to precipitate a shift towards activism nor desperate enough to renounce their membership point-blank. Through the liminal proceedings of this microcosm, Republic offers an intimate portrait of anxiety nested within ennui.

DIRECTOR: Jin Jiang;  DISTRIBUTOR: Metrograph Pictures;  IN THEATERS: July 12;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 47 min.

Originally published as part of Cinéma du Réel 2024.