As subtle as a cudgel, and almost as artful, “Unsilenced” is a Chinese polemic against Chinese one-party-state suppression of the Falun Gong religious and spiritual exercise movement.
Sorry if I’m not characterizing this “religion” as accurately as I might, or if I’m putting “religion” in quotation marks. Falun Gong is awfully new and there’s been a shocking amount of openly evil Chinese government pushback against it, much of it echoed in the Western media.
Truth be told, nothing about the way the Chinese government is depicted here — a surveillance, arrest, torture and “secretly” execute one-party dictatorship — is worth questioning. That’s who they are. And if the movie goes overboard in putting halos on the once fast-growing “movement” that the (One Party) People’s Republic has been suppressing for over 20 years, that’s almost forgivable. Almost.
This “inspired by true events” story is centered around idealistic college kids caught up in the government smearing, defaming and crackdown of 1999. Yes, this happened ten years after Tiananmen Square, something every character is hasty to draw a comparison to, especially those in the exploding population of Falun Gong practitioners. They see what’s coming. Eventually.
The movie says that in just ten years, some 100 million Chinese had joined this movement, with its tai chi-like exercises and its “truth, compassion and tolerance” message. Others put the figure at 70 million.
Two college couples are the focus of one storyline. Wang (Tim Wu) and Li (He Tao) are idealistic kids finding new purpose in this new religion. But the State, in the person of ever-scowling Director Zu (James Yi), is seething over their popularity. He’s a watch-obsessed autocrat who sees the fast-growing religion as a direct threat. If all these people follow Falun Gong, “who will have time for The Party?”
Director Zu is wearing this Leon Lee picture’s Big Metaphor right on his wrist. Time is “running out” on the latest authoritarian regime to run China, is that naive hope. As if there’s ever been any other type of government in the world’s most populous state.
The college kids are presented as champions of “truth,” refusing to fake lab results, as data-cooking is another part of the Chinese Communist Party’s brand. And when the summer of 1999 crackdown begins, the kids idealistically figure that their protests to the Party Appeal office will be heard.
Meanwhile, a long-banned American journalist (Sam Trammell) has finally been allowed back in, ten years after Tiananmen. He’s writing a “book about the history of Chinese culture,” has an eager local assistant (Anastasia Lin), another crackdown unfolding in front of him and editors back home in Chicago who know what he is remembering — that “the world forgets, and forgets quickly” when it comes to international crimes against humanity. Is it worth jeopardizing his status there, taking photos of protests, student pamphlets, banners and balloons expressing outrage?
At a time when “truth” is under assault by authoritarians at home and abroad, anybody who says “I can’t abandon truth for convenience” is worth heralding and celebrating. But this film, which plays as a recruiting film for Falun Gong and ends with a direct lecture about its struggles, wraps that message in some seriously heavy-handed proselytizing by some seriously uninteresting actors working a comically predictable script.
Rating: R for some violence
Cast: Tim Wu, He Tao James Yi, Anastasia Lin and Sam Trammell.
Credits: Directed by Leon Lee, scripted by Leon Lee, Jocelyn Tennant and Ty Chan. A Zehn Pictures release.
Running time: 1:45