Screened as part of NZIFF 2003
This terrific hour-long film plunges us into a world vastly different from everyday New Zealand reality, a world in which certain social imperatives have been startlingly distorted, and yet, despite the alien context, the characters that inhabit it are instantly familiar, and their behaviour immediately believable. The Secret of My Success has such density of detail and character that it could fuel a soap opera for months. It’s a tale of scam and counter-scam in the election for head of a remote Chinese village, which sees the sly incumbent, Mrs Li, up against straw man Mr Tan. The real decision-making power seems to lie, not with the villagers, but with our dubious hero, Mr Lu, the local Family Planning officer, who has orchestrated the signing over of countless proxy votes from the less politically concerned villagers. Mr Lu has fallen out with Mrs Li, his former partner-in-graft, over an ignoble piece of scapegoating, and has efficiently encouraged local outrage over a dodgy real estate deal to blossom into concerted opposition to her re-election. In one memorable scene that might seem eerily familiar to followers of our own political sagas, Mrs Li offers outlandish reasons why she cannot read out the financial report that would presumably disclose those shady dealings.
The action is embellished with bracingly profane language (and subtitles) and amazingly frank confessions to camera by the fearless Mr Lu. The real intrigue, however, can be found in an eye-opening subplot involving a young mother of two, pregnant for a forbidden third time. When the woman disappears, drastic options are considered (compulsory abortion at eight months, threatening the family) and Family Planning organises a posse to hunt her down. The fallout from this single act is deftly outlined by the filmmakers, offering a startling illumination of China’s birth control policies and grounding the political hijinks of the main plot in arrestingly personal matters. — Andrew Langridge
The Secret of My Success is one of a four-part series entitled Interesting Times produced in the West ‘to fit Western television reality’. Four established Chinese documentary makers were commissioned to make observational films about how the changes in modern China affect modern people. The recent success of the series on European television has led to the commissioning of a further series. — BG