The Drum Tower (China, 2018) [CVF 2019]

When China entered the market economy, the Chinese government strongly encouraged many of its unemployed workers to pursue their own business ambitions in the capital. These often meant opening a small shop, a local bookstore, a café – a “hole in the wall,” as it was colloquially referred – that added a sort of asymmetric charm to the massively expanding cityscape of Beijing.  Now, decades later, a different strategy is in place. As part of a government initiative to beautify the capital, the city’s authorities are plugging up these “holes,” forcing the shops to close and leaving their owners no choice but to relocate.

This is what filmmaker and activist Fan Popo saw happening to his beloved Beijing as he was writing his latest short film, The Drum Tower. Set in the Gulou (Drum Tower) area of Beijing, the film explores the effect that these changes have on two of its most marginalized inhabitants. In less than 18 minutes, Popo manages to draw a poignant parallel between the larger, city-wide injustice and the smaller, day-to-day discrimination that some people face.

The Drum Tower begins with Miss Mi (Chao Xiaomi) being ousted from a female public toilet and forced into the male side. Mi is a transgender woman, and therefore accustomed to this kind of treatment. She operates a small boutique near the Drum Tower from where she livestreams regularly about her life and thoughts, but ever since the government began construction in the area, she worries that her shop will not last much longer. Her worries are validated when two government employees inspect her shop and decide that it too shall be closed. 

At the same, the film follows Kacchan (also the actor’s name), a rebellious teenager who likes to walk around and photograph the transforming city. After meeting Miss Mi in the bathroom, he grows fascinated with her and, in true voyeuristic fashion, begins to observe her life from a distance. Peering through her window, he witnesses the effect that the eviction has on her life. As a person with an already fluid identity in the eyes of the world, her shop was one thing that kept Miss Mi firm, that defined an important aspect of her life. Now it is gone, and Mi feels abandoned. Kacchan and Mi find that they share a lot in common, and their mutual dissatisfaction of their environment eventually brings them together. 

It is no coincidence that Fan Popo opens The Drum Tower in a public toilet. The bathroom issue has become the definitive soundbite in the fight for transgender rights (either for or against), and an easy way to score political points on either side of the isle. Popo is clearly aware of the fact, but his statement is not so obviously one-sided.  He films the scene from a distance such that we don’t really get a good look at Miss Mi or the woman kicking her out of the bathroom. In fact, from the viewer’s perspective, Miss Mi looks far more feminine than the androgynously dressed middle aged woman shouting at her that she’s “not supposed to go in there.” The point is not to judge the characters by their appearances, but to show that the discrimination Miss Mi faces, based probably on her close-up appearance, is somewhat hypocritical and easily subverted when one changes their point of view.

Because point of view is an important theme in The Drum Tower. We don’t know what Kacchan thinks when he first encounters Mi, but it is only after an extended and closer (albeit voyeuristic) observation of Miss Mi that he truly connects with her. They’re both victims of the changing city ­– Mi through her eviction from the neighborhood, and Kacchan through his upper-class, French-speaking, and mostly indifferent mother who represents the aforementioned change. Their anger brings them together, though it remains unclear whether or not they have the power to do anything about it. In the end, all they can do is hold hands and stare at the rising barriers.

In a rapidly evolving world, it is often the marginalized that get left behind, if only because they have already expended so much effort to fit into the current status quo. Even if one has the “needs of the many” in mind, there’s always the risk of a tyranny of the majority where, as Mills pointed out, the many (or the powerful) may oppress the few. And even if that’s not our intention, we sometimes forget look back at the consequences of our collective progress. The Drum Tower does an excellent job of reminding us of that fact.

The Drum Tower is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 6.

John Atom