Michael Apted's powerful documentary Moving the Mountain does the public service of giving faces and voices to others who went on a hunger strike, defied Deng Xiaoping's regime and mobilized their countrymen for a brief moment, and the film clarifies for Western audiences the long-simmering political issues that eventually brought 10 million Chinese--students, journalists, intellectuals, workers, shopkeepers, peasants--to a boil in the spring of 1989. An entire generation stood behind the student who braved the tank, one of the film's passionate young speakers tells us, and, despite being once put to rout, that generation will stand again.
But that's about as far as the agitprop goes in the course of these profoundly moving 83 minutes. Director Apted is as well-known for Hollywood feature films like Gorillas in the Mist and Nell as he is for his socially conscious documentaries (Incident at Oglala and the 7 Up series), so his work here reveals not only the probing eye of a journalist/historian but the narrative gift of a good novelist.
The film's central character, if it can be said there is one, is an eloquent, bespectacled fellow named Li Lu, who in 1989 was a 23-year-old economics student at Nanjing University, on China's central coast. Stirred by his countrymen's growing demands for greater democracy and an end to government corruption, he snuck aboard a train that April and traveled 1,000 miles to Beijing, where he was swept into the maelstrom.
But the novelist in Apted (and in producer Trudie Styler) chronicles much more than a student's political awakening. By examining this one life, the filmmakers suggest China's entire tumultuous history over the last thirty years.
We learn through dramatic re-creations (done as well as those bastard things can be done) and fascinating archival footage that Li Lu was born in 1966, just as Mao's repressive Cultural Revolution was beginning. Li's father, a Russian-trained engineer, was denounced as a spy and sent to the coal mines. His mother, declared a "hereditary class enemy," was shipped off to a commune for "rehabilitation." The boy was shunted from one foster home to the next, and at age ten he survived China's deadliest earthquake in 400 years, which killed 240,000 people in his hometown of Tangshan. No government relief arrived for months afterward because, Li says, the citizens of his provincial city were considered "the dirt people."
That Li later became a leader of the democracy movement is poetic justice--and historical inevitability. That the movement failed was a tragedy.
How it failed is one of the subjects of Moving the Mountain, but the film's greater, deeper concern lies in the opposing legacies produced at Tiananmen Square. Li Lu, speaking softly in impeccable English, tells us he feels certain he "will again be summoned by history." But for now, he, like most of the other leaders, remains in exile, cut off from his people and his culture.
Enter Apted's graceful segue into the present lives of other democracy-movement leaders. In 1989, after Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng and the hardliners prevailed over their reform-minded colleagues, Deng ordered force in Beijing, and thousands were shot, trampled and crushed by government tanks. Wang Dan, number one on Deng's infamous "most wanted list," was tried and sentenced to five years in prison. Released in 1993, he remains politically active in China, and Apted was able to film him only at a secret location. Others, like the fiery Wu'er Kaixi, fled to Hong Kong, then the West, after 1.2 billion Chinese were deputized to unearth the "criminals." Apted filmed him on the Golden Gate Bridge, the most emblematic setting imaginable.
Chai Ling, number four on the official hit list, spent ten months in hiding and eventually made her way to America, where she studied international affairs at Princeton and now heads a think tank called China Dialogue. But clearly, she remains haunted by guilt and responsibility for those who died. Wang Chaohua, who was 37 when the movement started, was the oldest of the student leaders, and on camera (in Washington, D.C.), she weeps at the past.
Li Lu, the former foster child and veteran of Maoist terror, is now studying economics and law at New York's Columbia University, and when he speaks passionately about his return to China, the film invites us to imagine the visions of home behind his steady gaze.
At last this beautiful film relates to us the Chinese legend from which its title comes, about a peasant farmer who resolves to move a mountain that stands between him and freedom--rock by rock, day by day. Neither the farmer nor his children nor their children can complete the task, of course, but they know they must start somewhere. With that image, superimposed over the ghostly presence of a boy defying a tank, does Moving the Mountain draw to a close. It is one of the most affecting and illuminating political films ever made, and mandatory viewing for any who would grasp the ever more volatile relationship between China and the West.