Not to long ago I wrote about the strange situation that is Iron Man 3, whereas we find ourselves living in a world where The Mandarin of all characters can no longer be Chinese because cultural sensitivity — to an oppressive Communist regime — and a desire to make a few million more bucks dictates Hollywood’s behavior. And Shane Black’s “ultimate terrorist” is an American or British intelligent agent gone rogue. How original.
Given that America has a level of political and economic freedom that has historically been head-and-shoulders above the rest of the world, I find it odd that the “ultimate terrorist” would originate from one of the 50 states. Mr. Black is entitled to his opinion just like anyone else, but it would be refreshing if more directors were like Shaun Jefford, who actually has the courage to show the truth about our Communist “friends” on the other side of the globe.
Beijing Punk is a documentary about freedom. Period. It’s about the human spirit, which yearns to be free. It’s about individuals who are censored and oppressed and constrained by the government, but who inherently know that they are being robbed of the ability to fully pursue their hopes and dreams. Individuals can be poor and uneducated, and yet still make a stirring case for individual liberty because no amount of censorship or state-approved rhetoric can hide ideological shackles. Those who wear them will always scream out in defiance — in this case it’s through punk music.
Jefford’s film centers around a few Chinese punk bands who play at D-22, the CBGB’s on Beijing. Owner Michael Pettis and booking agent Nevin Domer are superb choices to include in the film, and equally articulate spokesmen for the importance of what D-22 is trying to achieve.
First, Pettis on the music.
“I speak to a lot of critics from the U.S. and from Europe who when they came here are always astonished by the freshness of the scene. And there was an English critic who said, ‘You know, in England there is nothing you can do that doesn’t have a huge history behind it. Whatever you do, someone has already done it. What ever you think, someone has thought it, and that becomes a huge weight on top of everything.’ And in China you don’t feel that at all. So you’ll have kids who are discovering Phil Ochs and Stravinsky and Velvet Underground at the same time. And so it’s like opening this enormous toy store to all these kids and rushing and and everything is interesting and everything is exciting.”
Next we have Nevin Domer on Chinese censorship:
Nevin Domer: The General is deciding they don’t like the lyrics [to the new Demerit album] and they’re deciding they don’t want to publish it. Both of these albums should have been printed last week in order to be done for the release show. Tonight was the night that we really needed to go to press. We won’t go into what all of these songs talk about. And Demerit, some of their lyrics are slightly risqué. I’d rather not talk too much about what the lyrics mean on film. The more ambiguous we can be with government officials the safer it is. I guess I just thought we could get away with pushing through whatever we want. We put through ‘Car Sick Cars’ and they have songs about cocaine and mushrooms. That’s all I want to say about that album for now.” …
Sound mixer: We have translations quite clear, quite clean. The General has cancelled some words. We still have some problems because of the Olympics. Everything is more controlled.
Nevin Domer: Can we do it today?
Sound mixer: Don’t worry about that.
Nevin Domer: It’s always like this.
Sound mixer: In China, it’s always some surprise.
It turns out that Mr. Domer said a little too much (his home was raided multiple times after Beijing Punk came out). Or maybe simply agreeing to take part in the film is what set the authorities off. Who knows. The point is, he had the audacity to think for himself.
As Lei Jun of the band Mi San Dao explains, free speech isn’t a right that is honored in China:
Lei Jun: You don’t have too much freedom because the government will say, ‘You do this, you don’t do this. Don’t speak this, you speak this.’ Yeah. It’s dangerous to talk. For them you can’t speak punk on the TV. Also you can’t speak skinhead. Also you can’t speak government bad and about the Olympics or too much building. Nothing. You just speak, ‘Oh, we have a good day, every day. We love China. We love the Olympics.’ … It’s different because in China the Chairman say something, all the people need to agree. It’s not like America. He can do what he want. He’s like the animal king. The animals are not like people. For like a monkey? A lot of monkeys, the monkey can do everything.
Shaun Jefford: So you honestly just said the Chairman job is a lot like a monkey king?
Lei Jun: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe…
Lie Jun then provides an interesting anecdote that Hollywood directors like Shane Black could appreciate; China is a lot like a Stanley Kubrick film:
“If you take the hash or weed in your pocket and the police see you, you’re going to the Chinese special name place. It’s like a hospital, but it’s not a hospital. It’s more bad than jail. … A lot of young men, more students, they drink too much codeine syrup and maybe two died. So the government they make the new special operation. The doctors from the Army, the put the boy on the bed and after you take off, you take a lot of things from the brain. After you will never drink codeine syrup. They take off your memory about this. Not memory. For example you like drink beer? They take this, after afterwards, you don’t like beer. They can change your hobby. Yeah. I think it’s like a Clockwork Orange, you know? The first time I saw it I said:”It’s a true Clockwork Orange in China!” (Lei Jun).
Let’s assume Lei was misinformed about the “special” jails and the strange operations. Let’s assume he is the victim of a rumor mill on overdrive. Can you blame him? He lives in an oppressive police state. (Sadly, it takes blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and other fearless individuals to show gullible Americans the truth.)
Perhaps most striking about Beijing Punk is that each band shies away from giving itself any sort of political label, and instead ops to say it is merely on the side of “freedom.” It doesn’t take a college education to know the difference between the invisible hand of free market economics — guiding individuals through countless voluntary and mutually beneficial transactions each day — and the invisible fist of a fear society pounding your psyche and your soul into the ground.
Observe the following exchange between Jefford and Li Yang of Demerit on China’s “one child” policy:
Li Yang: We are not political. Just about freedom.
Shaun Jefford: But freedom is political.
Li Yang: We think in a different place. Just from … [W]e don’t know the deeper meaning of politics …
As I said before, here in America political parties have disappointed us. And when you boil it down, it’s all about freedom vs. tyranny.
Which side are you on? Beijing Punk is clearly on the side of freedom. Check it out if you get the chance.