The Land of Many Palaces

An extraordinary and often comic glimpse into China's policy to transplant a quarter of a billion farmers into ready-made metropolises

The Land of Many Palaces In the next 20 years, the Chinese government aims to move a quarter of a billion farmers from the countryside to new cities: the largest migration of people in the history of the world. What does this progress look like? And what is being left behind? This extraordinary and often comic ob-doc follows the huge changes in the lives of rural people as they are transplanted to a ready-made metropolis and abandon their ancient way of living.

"I'm here to show you how to use the shower and the toilet." Xiaomei Yuan, a community supervisor, explains to the latest migrants from Inner Mongolia's villages arriving at the new luxury apartments of Ordos City. She briskly runs through the modern appliances; kettles, TVs and shopping channels. With her help these country bumpkins will become urbanites, contributing to their new city home. After vast coal deposits were discovered in Ordos the region went from being one of the poorest areas of China to one of the wealthiest. In an effort to modernise, the local government used the money to build the new metropolis - now China's biggest ghost city.

The new tenants stare blankly and silently at their large TV sets, as colourful adverts promote organic wine. Outside, the only signs of life in the vast panorama of the European-style city centre are a single car cruising in the empty four-lane roads and a lone road cleaner, going through the motions of sweeping the pristine pavements. Recent arrivals from the countryside pile off a tour bus to pose for pictures in front of vast, imposing statues of Genghis Khan, dwarfed by the skyscrapers and shell-like apartment blocks surrounding them.

Meanwhile, scattered building sites reveal that this is an urban vision very much under construction. And it's not just the buildings that need work. "Be civilised with your mouth", proclaims a young city spokeswoman through a microphone to a crowd of bemused onlookers and card players sitting on the pavement smoking. "Be civilised with your hands. Be civilised with your feet. Be civilised when walking, riding, driving and parking." A young mother clutching a leaflet eventually pipes up, "you need to explain this. What is a civilised city?" The uncomfortable response comes, "OK, we'll give you more propaganda brochures..."

"If the developers of the new city need your land it will be taken", explains a farmer. Slowly, option after option is worn away for the villagers, like Hao Shiwen and his wife, who would rather stay. For them the choice is an illusion. "You can survive for months without money in the countryside" Hao says forlornly, standing among his verdant crops. "There's no need for you to grow crops", says Hao Shiwen's son. But without their farms, many have lost their only source of income and struggle to find jobs. For all its luxury and convenience, a life in the city is a bewildering life of dependence, rather than self-reliance. Arriving in the city Hao's wife smiles sadly. "There used to be a great river running here. Now there is an artificial lake."

Wry and revealing ob-doc at its best, A Land of Many Palaces is a fascinating glimpse of social engineering at its most extreme.

Laurel Official Selection - Santa Barbara International Film Festival, 2015
Laurel Official Selection - Doc Aviv, 2015
Laurel Winner - Best International Documentary - RIFF Awards, 2015
Laurel Official Selection - DMZ Docs, 2015
Laurel Official Selection - Documentary Edge Festvial, 2015
Laurel Official Selection - Miami International Film Festival, 2015


The Producers

As a director and cinematographer, Ting's short films have been selected for many international film festivals. Ting produced the feature film “Her Love Story” in 2011. She gained her MFA degree in Film Production from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and holds dual BAs in English Literature and Finance from the University of International Business & Economics in Beijing.

Adam is a Stanford-educated documentary filmmaker from England. His films focus on characters experiencing rapid change in their lives. To date, he has produced, directed and edited four short documentaries in America and one feature documentary in China: The Land of Many Palaces (co-dir Song Ting). He is currently in post-production on his second feature documentary, Americaville.

A bilingual producer/director and a graduate from Beijing University's History Department, Qihan Wang has more than twenty years of experience in both documentary and narrative fields in China. Currently, she is producing “Born in China", a wild life movie jointly funded by Disney and SMG. Prior to that, she has produced a series of documentary projects broadcasted on China Central Television, BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic and CBC Television.

Making The Film

In 2011, upon seeing photos of Ordos, China’s largest “ghost city”, in Time magazine, filmmakers Adam James Smith and Song Ting visited the city and were immediately captivated by what they saw. Unbeknown to the journalists who had already visited Ordos, the city was to become the testing ground for an unprecedented plan, designed by the central government, to relocate 250 million farmers to new urban districts all across China, over 15 years. Ordos is one of the first cities to be built to house relocated farmers. Between December 2012 and February 2014, Adam and Ting, with producing help from Wang Qihan, followed this relocation process and shot the film over several trips. From January to July 2014 the film was edited in Thailand by Adam, and music was composed by Rob Scales in the UK.

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