Indie Film Review – Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai

Jason Reid, the filmmaker who directed the critically acclaimed documentary Sonicsgate (2009), returns with a brand new film. However, his newest movie does not focus on sports, or corruption, or lies. The film is not even based in the United States. Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai (2010) is yet another fascinating documentary that opens up a world to viewers that they may not have seen before. It captures a country that has received a particular reputation amongst the rest of the world, but through this unique adventure that Reid and his colleagues undertook, they have revealed China in way contrary to popular belief. The film is entertaining, insightful, and aware. With this and Sonicsgate, Reid and his team have stepped up as major independent filmmakers that one should be on the look out for.

The term “Man Zou” is a Mandarin phrase that literally means to “Walk Slow.” Take your time, see the world around you, and know your environment. Reid, along with his three American friends and a Chinese guide, set out to do just this in the fall of 2008. Weeks after the close of the Beijing Olympics, they set out on a month-long journey that would take them one thousand miles from Beijing to Shanghai. The twist to this adventure is that they would not be doing this by car or by bus—they would be doing it entirely by bicycle. That’s right, one thousand miles done completely by the power of their legs on their own pedals. What makes this story even more incredible is that they also did it without the help of a support vehicle. This means that they would have to carry everything: clothes, food, medical supplies, etc. One can only imagine how difficult this would be in itself; but to film the entire journey (they would have to carry their own video/sound equipment as well) would seem impossibly daunting. Early on in their trip, we see the group hitting a wall and struggling to get through certain mountainous regions, eventually having to discard unneeded weight as they all (except for their guide) overpacked.

So why did they decide to do this by bicycle? As described in the film, the experience of seeing the land you are in is different when you are on a bike instead of inside a motorized vehicle. You have to be aware of the world around you, the details of everything having more clarity in your perspective, and that’s exactly what their motivation was. There is no window to block them from the outside world; they are a part of it: they must interact with their environment, the weather and climate having a direct impact on their trip. We see many scenes of the men going into different towns, interacting with crowds of curious Chinese people wondering who these foreigners were and what they were up to, sleeping in different people’s homes and trying new and unique foods. This is far different compared to the usual way tourists would see China, and throughout it all, the camera is always rolling, catching everything that these men went through and experienced, whether it was good or bad.

Some of the key moments of the film were when the men biked through heavily industrialized areas of China. These areas were very often covered in heavy gray clouds. From a distance, one would think that these clouds are heavy fogs, the kind you would see welcoming people in the morning here in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the group quickly realized that the clouds are not fog, but smog, very thick clouds made entirely from the pollution shoveled into the air. This sets up the major issue that the film attempts to face: the rapidly growing economic state of China from a rural to a mainly urban nation. The population and urbanization of China is growing at such a rate that the cities are rising at nearly thirty times the rate of major cities in the United States. We see evidence of this in nearly every scene of the film; just about every town and city that the men travel through have massive skyscrapers and towers everywhere, some of which resemble medieval castles.

This poses a number of problems for the Chinese people. Through testimony and explanation from a number of interviews, it is explained that the massive growth of the country is one that they may not be able to handle. One of the major issues is the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. From what was shown in the film, it would appear that the middle class is very small, for the amount of skyscrapers we see, there are an equal amount (if not more) of towns shown with people scraping to survive in very minimal living conditions. This leads to massive migration of people moving into urban areas. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough space and work to accommodate all of these people. Doven, the group’s Chinese guide, explains that there is a shortage of everything in the country, except for people. The biggest issue that major industrialization has caused is the pollution. As the men witnessed firsthand, pollution is a major factor; half of the major cities would fail pollution and emission tests. This is of great cause for concern, as there is a clear and obvious line between the amount of pollution and the increasing number of illnesses and diseases that the country is experiencing. But this does not mean that the country has not gone far in recent years. This is a proud people, and the film does a good job of showing some of their major successes. In 2008, China launched and had their first successful space walk. In the past, people had to wait in long lines to receive a small amount of food, and yet in the film we see people in the present with the ability to get and attain just about anything they desire to have. And of course, there was the Beijing Olympics, with the entire world focused on this country that hasn’t had a real chance to show its true colors.

Compared to the economic times that the United States is currently going through, Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai poses as an interesting look into a country that has had a reputation of being this tough, cold, and unrelenting superpower. As the film shows, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. This is a country of very welcoming, successful, and friendly people, that has come a long way despite the many problems it has faced and will face in the future. There was a moment in the film when one of the team members said that all they wanted to do was to learn more, and we come away from the film thinking just that. If there was any criticism to be had for the film, it is that it would seem that it only peers into the outer shell of China and the issues it faces, and then quickly goes back to the travelogue beauty that is the team’s bicycle trip. But perhaps this slight criticism, in reality, is to the benefit of the film’s intentions. If we come away wanting to learn more about this place, its beauty, and the challenges it faces, perhaps that’s exactly what Jason Reid and his colleagues hoped for.

Final Grade: B+

Be sure to check out our review of Sonicsgate from last fall too.


Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

You can reach Allen via email or Twitter

View all posts by this author