China’s economic growth is largely predicated on urbanization and the role of the state in modernizing via the development of cities. Since the 1908s China has experienced urban change at an unprecedented scale and scope— by 2050 there will be more than 210 cities in China with more than one million residents.
Urban transformation in China constitutes both a domestic revolution and a world-historical event, because it represents the largest construction project in the planet’s history. In two decades 85% of China’s total population will live in cities. This represents the largest internal migration process in world history, and a nearly exact reversal of 1978 population distribution at the dawn of the post-Mao era.
The pace and scale of change, as well as the grand narrative of urban transformation, are dominated by superlatives— the tallest skyscrapers, the largest shopping malls, the longest bridges and highways, the fastest trains. All this novelty and grandeur serves to underscore to the teleology of progress promoted by President Xi Jinping’s “China dream”— a syllogism that argues for economic prosperity of the country, rejuvenation of the nation and happiness of the people. The ‘China Dream’ is a syllogism, constructed by way of inexorable logic and, as the apotheosis of political rhetoric, only argued symbolically. It has been recently summarized by a three-and-a-half minute video that is projected in every cinema before the screening of any film, since July 1st. This self-aggrandizing video will continue to screen at least until the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, to be held in the autumn.
Behind the glittering façade of this story lie realities of exclusion, violence, dispossession, and destruction which all point toward a civilization’s ruin. Such realities are the focus of Song Pengfei’s debut feature film Underground Fragrance (地下香 dixia xiang), an excellent piece of social realism and minimalist formalism, which depicts the lives of the underdog, the marginalized, the subaltern, those often dismissed as collateral damage for the achievement of the "China dream."
To define the main male character Yong Le (played by Chinese model and debut actor Luo Wenjie) and his female neighbour Xiao Yun (debut actress Ying Ze) as economic migrants would be reductive. Rather, they are part of the shuzu (‘rat tribe’), the estimated one million people who live underground in Beijing. Their homes are subterranean units subdivided from the city's labyrinthine bomb shelters and bunkers built in the 1970s, more closely resembling burial recesses than habitable dwellings.