Railroad Chinese Style
A black screen, with noise over an image of nothingness, segues into an array of abstract shapes, that could be body parts, eventually leading to the cramped interior of a rancid train car, where Chinese men and women attempt to carve out a space to rest, work, or smoke. Shot over three years of riding the rails throughout all parts of China, but edited to seem like it’s one fluid trip, J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry starts off as a collection of these interior impressions, establishing atmosphere, sound, image, and also the smells – of garbage, meat, sweat, and ever-present cigarettes. There may be little for long stretches of this journey, but that doesn’t mean there are moments of silence, as the constant clanks and hums of the train, shaped by Ernst Karel’s sound design, is a barrage on the senses. How do these people manage to sleep?
Sniadecki presents a cross section of the Chinese population, in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and class, who engage with the director in casual conversation. The subject is vast, but the filmmaking is modest and patient, and Sniadecki doesn’t force a narrative onto his subject, or subjects – the train system, the people on the train, the anxious and uneasy body politic of China itself. He’s just as concerned with spending time following a vendor who should have loaded up on his instant noodles, as talking politics with a Tibetan author – TSERING Woeser, the subject of ZHU Rikun’s Dang An (The Dossier). Sniadecki doesn’t explicitly touch on the changing politics until the film’s latter part, which has the effect of reframing the sensations of the beginning movements in hindsight: this is a portrait of a country as it advances full steam ahead into the future, and it’s no surprise that by the end of the journey, we’re met with announcements in English.
J.P. Sniadecki's quote (from an unofficial announcement from a young passenger):
“Passengers, your attention please! The train is moving fast, so please extend your hands out of the window, making it easier to lose them all at once... And if you discover your feet over your head, you’ve arrived at the last stop: heaven”