"Those who don't support me, please pity me and vote for me."
- Gov. Sarah Palin
...oh relax, I'm just kidding!
The quote comes from 8-year-old Cheng Cheng
Bribes, backstabbing, character assassination, empty promises, mudslinging, flashy debates...no, you haven't accidentally clicked on a review of the national conventions. You've wandered into a class full of little kids!
This can't be real, can it?! These super-cute Chinese munchkins turned into backstabbing Muppets? About 15 minutes into this hour-long documentary, I was convinced I was being punked by some genius Saturday Night Live digital sketch. Everything was too perfectly hysterical, it couldn't be genuine. But as much as I love SNL, its writers couldn't come up with something this amazing.
The winner of the grand jury prize at the prestigious 2007 Silverdocs Film Festival--and a film that made the first cut for an Academy Award nomination--Please Vote for Me sets the cameras on a third-grade class (look closely and you can see China's gold-medal winning women's gymnastics team!) at Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, part of Central China. While China has been governed by the Communist people's democratic dictatorship--and while school class monitors are usually appointed by teachers--Evergreen decided to try an experiment. By the start of the school year, teachers had selected three candidates for class monitor. The kids were allowed to pick two assistants and campaign for votes in the first-ever election at a Chinese school.
"What is democracy?" asks an unseen filmer to a young girl as the film opens. "I don't know. What does it mean?" she responds, cute as a button. She's about to learn, as her three options for monitor are revealed:
- Luo Lei, already a monitor for two years, is the son of police department parents. His mother seems particularly demanding: "What are you playing?!" she asks during his flute practice. "You're totally out of tune...you're making so many mistakes." While Lei shows initial signs of a refreshing perspective ("I don't want to control others--they should think for themselves...people should vote for whomever they want"), he proves to be a ruthless competitor known for his bullying tactics.
- Cheng Cheng, a boisterous boy who speaks loudly and carries a big stick. "I want to be the class monitor because you can order people around," he says to his stepfather and TV producer mom. When he isn't causing chaos at school along with his ridiculously lovable henchman, the portly student likes to walk around in his underwear a lot. "Put on your pajamas!" commands mom at home after school. "Can I take off my underwear? I've got some pee on them..."
- Xu Xiaofei, the most adorable girl you'll ever lay your eyes on. She's the quietest of the three, a gentle soul raised by a single mom, a school administrator. "What if I make a mistake?" Xiaofei asks. "Don't worry," replies mom. "Everyone makes mistakes. You look very pretty. Be confident!" One of the film's most heartbreaking moments comes at a talent show, when mom shares how she can't provide the same resources as other parents, crying as her daughter struggles.
The race becomes just as much about the parents as the kids. We get a glimpse into the trio's home life, where the parents live vicariously through their children. The elders try their best to ensure a win, whether it's writing speeches, suggesting bribes or initiating a dirt-digging campaign to slander opponents. Again, I ask: Is this for real?!
Director Weijun Chen doesn't intrude much--outside of very brief questions by the videographers, we just watch the mayhem unfold. The film is a fascinating hour that opens the door to a sharply perceptive microcosm that reveals a lot about human nature--an accurate portrayal that is both funny and frightening (kind of like watching Hello Kitty scratch your eyes out).
I question how much coaching came before the cameras started rolling--for both the kids and the parents--but I don't really care. You can't deny the delicious drama watching a bunch of 8-year-olds connive their way through the emotionally draining (and brutal) campaign, smiling the whole time as they make some shrewd moves. It's equally entertaining watching the voters chime in. They also feel the pressure--often with the candidates hovering over their shoulders--about who to support, and make some pretty savvy observations of their own.
With the recent Beijing Olympics (you've probably memorized the Chinese national anthem by now) and the upcoming landmark U.S. presidential election, there isn't a better time to watch this. Not only does it parallel big-time U.S. politics, it also shares the surprisingly relatable lives of everyday people. What fascinated me the most was the film's universality: These kids and parents are just like everyone else. While our countries and cultures are worlds apart, the basic human emotions, needs, hopes and fears are the same, and that's a heartwarming realization.
And did I mention the kids are insanely cute, like so cute you almost can't stand it? I dare you not to smile as Cheng Cheng practices for the talent show, his two advisors chiming in with their advice on his singing--a hilarious exchange that perfectly encapsulates the heart and soul of this gem.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation (frequently with handheld cameras) is decent considering the meager budget, with solid, mostly true colors and a sharp enough image throughout.
A 2.0 stereo track makes its presence known, and is more than robust enough to capture a lot of voices at once (those kids are loud!) without the key ones getting lost in the shuffle. Forced English subtitles are provided for the Mandarin dialogue.
Sadly, all we get is a trailer for the film. How about a fourth grade catch-up with the student body?! On another note, I have an issue with whoever designed the film's slipcase...
Unlike any documentary I've seen, this hour-long look at the first ever election held at a Chinese school is not only universally relevant and relatable, but also charming, hysterical and frightening. Sit back and watch the fireworks as these adorable 8-year-old Muppets engage in some wicked behavior. They have smiles on their faces the whole time...and so will you. Highly Recommended.