Runtime: 89 minutes
Director: Han Meng
By Joan Amenn
The documentary “Smog Town” is yet another timely reminder that public health and politics often work at cross purposes. The film concerns itself not with COVID-19 but with widespread air pollution and how it impacts the lives of the people surrounding the capitol of China, Beijing.
Climate change and the ravages of pollution have been described as the second pandemic the world faces, and “Smog Town” raises some chilling similarities. Directed by Han Meng (“China’s Forgotten Daughters”), the film is subtle in its commentary about how local environmental officials are addressing the health issue, which, no doubt, is why it was able to be released to a worldwide audience. The government of China likely would not like the world to know its efforts to curb air pollution are ineffective.
Langfang is a small city with many steel mills that contribute to its reputation as one of the most polluted areas of China. This is a political embarrassment because Langfang in close to Beijing, so the city’s increase in respiratory diseases for its inhabitants has impacted the capitol as well. The response to this issue is a convoluted administrative machine referred to as the Langfang Environmental Protection Bureau headed by Director Li Chunyuan. He is as much a carnival barker as an environmental detective, and he clearly enjoys the perks of being something of a local power broker. He tells an underling at one point that sleeping at work is not permitted, but there is a bed in his office. His subordinates grind out long days of cracking down on local transgressions of environmental policy and then return to the office to massage computerized projections of just how bad their air quality is.
Climate change and the ravages of pollution have been described as the second pandemic the world faces, and “Smog Town” raises some chilling similarities.
Li seems to know just how much performance art is necessary to keep himself and his bureau in the good graces of Beijing officials. They arrive in busloads to hear about the latest innovations in indoor air filtration, but not much can be done to improve the thick gray blanket of pollutants that can be so dense, it is hard for people to discern when a train is pulling into a local station. The same Beijing administrators don’t want the steel mills shut down or larger manufacturing impacted by the environmental regulations because this would negatively impact the country’s economy.
“Smog Town” depicts how this conflicted sense of priorities plays out for the Environmental Bureau, which has no choice but to go after small business owners for minor transgressions in an effort to justify its existence. It is a heartbreaking situation for low-wage workers who are scraping by any way they can in makeshift garages and workshops. Often, the bureau employees are as guilty as the citizens of Langfang of violations such as using coal as fuel in their homes, but rank in the local government machine has its privileges.
“Smog Town” is a balanced and honest film that doesn’t villainize anyone except maybe the higher-ranking Party representative from Beijing, who announces with chilling calm that there will be repercussions for the mayor, vice-mayor, and even the local Party official unless Langfang lowers its pollutant levels. No one in the audience he addresses seems to have any doubt about what those repercussions might entail. There are no easy answers for the people of China, who continue to suffer from the effects of toxins in their environment and an ineffective government.