A young couple with a baby are told their rent is going up next month by more than 25 percent. The rapacious landlords are abusive and confrontational; accusations fly, along with ethnic slurs, and fists. The couple has to move, obviously, but can’t find anything that’s not dirtier, smaller and more expensive than they’d like. They use brokers, who shuttle them from one substandard craphole to another. Finally, they get a solid tip the usual way – word-of-mouth – at which point they’re ripped off by moving men.
Brooklyn? No — Beijing.
The pan-ethnic real-estate misery portrayed in “The Beijing Ants” — which had its work premiere last week at the Canadian nonfiction smorgasbord Hot Docs — so mirrors the housing crisis of New York (and, no doubt, London, Tokyo and Brisbane) that any reservations a viewer might have about one-child policies, coal-powered pollution and Communist oppression are shunted off to the side: We’re all one people! We all hate landlords!
In getting to the bottom, literally, of the Chinese urban housing crunch, Japanese filmmaker Ryuji Otsuka decided to target the suburb of Tongzhou, 20 meters outside the center of Beijing (think Ozone Park, maybe) where rents are still within reason, but where the couple at the center of the film (one of whom is the director) are getting squeezed out nonetheless. Otsuka’s premise – that housing prices in Beijing have surpassed London, Tokyo and New York — isn’t really backed up by hard data (the 2,600 RMB, or yuan, figure that the couple are quoted equates to about $415 — which according to cost-of-living equations, comes out to about $1,000 — great rent, even in Bushwick). But the tortures of the apartment hunter are the same — so much so that one can’t help but wonder where communism went so wrong.
Split into five acts, “Beijing Ants” is a totally verite doc with a seat-of-the-pants aesthetic that begins with a surreptitiously-shot argument between Couple A and a belligerent Couple B – the son and daughter of the landlords. It takes mere moments for the whole scene to descend into screaming and hitting because each couple has a different story about what was agreed upon — mostly because the landlords themselves are big fat liars. A scene confirming this later is kind of unbelievable, unless you’ve ever rented an apartment in a major city, in which case it’ll be 80-odd minutes of déjà vu.
Otsuka’s shooting style, such as it is, gets the viewer right up the nose of the antagonists – in Act II, “The Rude,” our heroic couple are again assailed by Son of the Landlord, who’s an abusive wretch, and the sense of melee is palpable. Act III – “The Good” – involves real-estate agents, several of whom are actually OK, and try to cut a deal to help their clients, although there’s always some issue lurking in the corner like a malignant cockroach.
The principal characters aren’t exactly innocent of at least some unrealistic expectations: When they move into a new place, adjacent to a park, it turns out there’s a beer garden at its center, with an obnoxious sound system and more obnoxious managers. The couple, kid in tow, march over to make their complaint that there’s too much noise at 10 p.m. And all one can think is how they should consider themselves lucky.
The couple also heaps some abuse on the local cops who respond to their complaint, to the point that the viewer might just suspect that director Otsuka is pushing to see whether the law-enforcement officers will rise to the bait, and follow their basic instincts into a baton-and-pepper-spray solution to the whole affair.
One of the more absurd moments – more absurd than a move in New York, even – arrives when the couple and their belongings arrive at the new place, an apartment complex built around a mall, and where no accommodation has apparently been made to load any furniture into the buildings. Service elevators? Heck, they can’t even get the truck within 300 feet of the doors. The moving men hold the household hostage.
With so many bizarre encounters, the only thing predictable about Otsuka’s movie is a comment at the end between the woman and her moving man, who says he’s been in Beijing a certain number of years and has seen prices skyrocket. Her response? “If you’d bought a house 10 years ago,” at which point the viewer loses nearly any sympathy he or she might have harbored for the downtrodden renters of Beijing.