“Build a good highway and honour local people” runs a banner at a construction site in Zhang Zanbo’s observational doc The Road (大路朝天, Dàlù Cháotiān), though as we’ll discover in the end they’ll do neither. An allegory for the progress of the modern China, Zhang’s chronicle of a Hunan highway lays bare the various states of decay at the centre of a contradictory society in which money rules all and there is no longer any such thing as wrongdoing only acts which must be compensated for.
Divided into four sections, Zhang’s documentary first asks us, indirectly, who the highway is for. The State began this project in 2009 as part of an economic drive fuelled by a good old-fashioned public works programme improving infrastructure across the country. Yet the highway will have little direct benefit for those who live beside it, something to which the construction teams seem to pay little mind. An elderly woman living alone in a traditional home pleads with a team blasting away at the mountain behind her to stop because they still haven’t compensated her for damage to her house, but they routinely ignore her and later the son who returns to advocate on her behalf. Because of their explosions, the old woman has a hole in her roof and being elderly would not be able to repair it herself but the construction team continue to refuse to help, irritatedly blaming her for not understanding them because they speak different dialects while fobbing her son off explaining that he needs to contact a different department because compensation and repairs are not in their remit.
A secondary problem is that though the highway is a government project it’s been outsourced to a private engineering firm who view their responsibility solely to fulfil the contract and build the road while the Party officials who hired them utter vaguely menacing phrases about quashing any and all opposition. The locals often don’t seem to have been aware that any construction would be taking place or that their land and homes may be zoned for demolition. They complain that they’ve not received compensation they were promised for previous infractions and largely remain uncooperative while the construction teams assume that they’re simply angling for more money while insensitively digging up old graves and destroying ancient shrines still in use by the local community. Saving a giant Buddha statue one of the construction leaders seems to feel some remorse, chastened by another bystander that Buddha is unlikely to look fondly on him now he’s put him out in the rain. The team then erect a makeshift canopy hoping at least to keep his head dry.
Another farmer meanwhile complains that his tree is holy and has an earth deity underneath it, advising the team to get a priest to bless it first only to be reminded that there’s no way on Earth the Communist Party could be involved in something so superstitious. The farmer lets rip, openly calling the Party greedy and corrupt while others in the village agree that the State continues to confiscate their property without warning or fair compensation. “The government owns you and your tree!” the representative claps back, denying the locals any sense of personal agency as he continues to encroach on their daily lives, merely reminding them they’ll be adequately compensated for relocating which many of them, including the old lady and her son, eventually do.
Compensation is always being promised but is rarely delivered as the labourers find to their cost, offered danger money and bonuses for working in obviously unsafe conditions but refused even time off or expenses when injured on the job. Ironically enough, workers’ rights are at the forefront of no one’s minds even as a bust of Chairman Mao (born in this very area) rests on the boss’ dashboard. When they ask for fair pay or treatment, the workers, like the locals, are accused of being selfish and money grubbing actively standing in the way of their nation’s progress. Instead of looking after their employees, company bosses schmooze local authorities, often handing out little red packets to smooth the path ahead but the construction firm too eventually finds itself on the receiving end of governmental extortion when the local road bureau try to shut them down over missing permits and later send in armed thugs when they refuse to pay leaving some employees in the hospital with multiple stab wounds awaiting further compensation either from their company who put them in a dangerous position or from the state authorities.
If all that weren’t worrying enough, inspectors at the site find multiple issues with build quality that could endanger public safety. They seem frustrated that corners have been cut and insist that certain sections be entirely rebuilt before the project can be passed. 37 bridges had apparently collapsed in China since 2007 presumably because of the same lax safety culture while it seems the company was never penalised for breaching regulations in part because of all that schmoozing. The workers and the locals, we later learn, eventually got a degree of compensation, but Zhang’s unflinching doc nevertheless lays bare the degree to which the modern China continues to consume itself in its all encompassing obsession with “modernisation”.
The Road is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.