HotDocs14: The Beijing Ants

A hidden camera rests behind some sort of plant, taking in the majority of a Beijing living room. Several people enter the room and each take turns stating their case. The exact situation is unclear, but it appears to be a dispute about rent. The owners are hiking the price, which the tenants say is unfair because they had an understanding with the parents of one of the owners. The owners say verbal agreements don’t count, only “black on white.” Tensions escalate. People are shouting and moving about, threatening each other while defending their behaviour. The camera doesn’t move. It keeps running. They keep arguing.

Although in later scenes the camera moves and isn’t always hidden, this is the general pattern of the documentary: long takes of negotiations and disputes, some more heated than others.

The Beijing Ants follows a young Beijing family as they move to the new suburb of Tongzhou in an effort to find cheaper rent and better landlords. The film is divided into a number of acts, each of which chiefly consists of one or a few very long takes.

The shots are usually shaky, sometimes incredibly so, as the director/father carries the camera around to record the various negotiations involved in the process of moving. At first they find a good broker, but he’s too nice to argue for their demands with the landlords. The movers want to charge extra for the 200m they have to carry the stuff from the truck to the new apartment. The new place seems nice, but throbbing EDM from a nearby beer garden is keeping them up at night.

After the screening, director Ryuji Otsuka, the father in the family, said he first began recording things as a means of security, because he was afraid of his mobster landlord. Then he became interested in recording the various encounters, which he describes as conflicts of perspective.

What emerges from this sort-of home movie is a portrait of a twenty-first-century capitalist China spiraling out of control. The fact that the police depicted in the film are continually called on to settle disputes but always end up doing nothing almost plays as an allegory about unfettered markets.

The film is frustrating to watch, but that seems to be the intention. The disputes are obviously unpleasant, but at the same time its interesting to see them because they’re real. Most of the time, though, I couldn’t help wishing the scenes were trimmed or that the camera was planted. The experience is too irritating to recommend, but for the curious and patient, it could be rewarding.

5 out of 10

The Beijing Ants (China)

Directed by Ryuji Otsuka