Movies have taken place in and around trains since the very beginning of the medium, but rarely has the setting received the scrutiny on display in J.P. Sniadecki's experimental documentary "The Iron Ministry." Shot over the course of three years on innumerable trains throughout China, Sniadecki's absorbing portrait of Chinese travelers condenses the extensive production into a single experience.
Sniadecki's an affiliate of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, which has produced a number of ruminative portraits of distinctive locations, including "Leviathan" and "Manakamana." The new movie fits that brand, though it casts a much wider net, by not only exploring the train's unique status but turning it into a grand metaphor for China itself.
Expertly assembled with a consistent sound design built around the constant hum of the engine, "The Iron Ministry" veers from mundane to lively encounters with dozens of vaguely defined characters. Occasional dialogue is matched by a refined camera work that roams through car after car, nimbly allowing the constrained space to become a self-defined world. The constant motion prevents "The Iron Ministry" from becoming a claustrophobic affair; instead, it's akin to gliding through a tube of compact life, witnessing civilization in motion.
As if to drive home that point, "The Iron Ministry" opens in complete darkness, and stays that way for a good minute. From darkness, we shift to the light of the train, where we remain for the rest of the movie. From start to finish, it's a fully contained world.
After a remarkable series of images establish the mechanical surroundings, Sniadecki assembles a somewhat arbitrary set of events. A food cart vendor roams the aisles, while various passengers sleep and others watch the outside world go by. Though the atmosphere remains hypnotic, Sniadecki doesn't always succeed at fusing these incidents into a coherent whole, and the result sometimes feels cluttered in spite of the 80-minute running time. It would be easy to imagine much of this footage projected onto multiple screens at once to similarly convey China's crowded universe; stuffed together over the course of 80 minutes, the movie is certainly riddled with mesmerizing sequences, but lacks a sense of linear direction.
However, the movie sparkles with ideas whenever the camera stops to observe various fragments of conversations, including dialogue about global terrorism and the housing market. Finding a telling contrast between first class (which the director briefly films before he's forced out) and the rest of the train, Sniadecki effectively illustrates the source of despair afflicting many citizens — one of whom is overheard discussing the prospects of fleeing the country. "My right to choose is my pair of legs," he says, a statement weighted with irony given the moving vehicle he's standing on.
Far more critical of its setting than many of the Sensory Ethnographic Lab projects with which it has a kinship, "The Iron Ministry" turns the chaos of modern China into dense, frantic poetry. It only really suffers when the subject is bluntly realized, including one bit where a woman explains a 7th century myth involving the invasion of iron monsters who destroy the world — and notes, of course, that with the ever-expanding train, this has already happened.
It's a striking image, but also an obvious one. While "The Iron Ministry" is never less than engaging on the level of pure craftsmanship, it's limited by the confines of its basic metaphor. But Sniadecki manages to transcend those boundaries in a phenomenal closing sequence littered with abstract imagery as the landscape rapidly changes shape in a collage of light and color. By the end, the real focus of "The Iron Ministry" isn't the train but the world zipping past it.
"The Iron Ministry" premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.