In “High Tech, Low Life,” director Stephen Maing has three subjects. Two are Chinese citizen journalists who use their blogs to expose corruption and scandal. The third is the vast nation they live in and want to see reformed.
Zhu Shuguang, 26, goes by the name of Zola. Was the choice inspired by that other Zola, Emile, who wrote the most famous two-word sentence in journalism history, “I accuse”? Presumably, since Zola is an investigative blogger. He makes his living as a produce vendor in a small town in Hunan province. But he’s making his name by posting online stories about corruption. “I just record what I witness,” he says. There’s a lot to witness.
Zola is a bit brash. He takes a picture of himself seeming to leap over the Great Wall of China. “One of my goals,” he confides, “is to become famous.” His growing fame as a citizen journalist makes his mother both proud and anxious. “You know what I always say,” she tells him. “It’s fine that you work hard at what you do, but you need to keep the vegetable business going.” Zola’s father is more sanguine. “I think my son will make me proud,” he says.
Zhang Shihe, known as Tiger Temple, describes himself as “China’s first citizen reporter.” He earned that title about a decade ago when, seeing a murder taking place, he took photos of the event after he’d called police, and posted them on his blog.
Tiger is in his late 50s. His parents were both Communist Party members. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution overturned his life when he was only 13. He retains a low-key, unshakable idealism. “We’ve all been brainwashed,” he laments. “I’ve listened to lies for many years.”
Based in Beijing, Tiger rides around on his bicycle (Zola has a motorcycle) — sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to investigate stories. “Just remember,” he says, “this old geezer is going to tell the truth until he dies.”
We see both men having difficulties with the authorities — from being denied permission to travel to having a website blocked to being interrogated by officials. The censorship is intermittent and unpredictable. But it’s no less effective for being as much potential as active.
“High Tech, Low Life” (not a good title) has a nice easy rhythm. It feels neither hurried nor emphatic. There’s no narration. Zola and Tiger do most of the talking. The film cuts back and forth between them. The men meet once. “A playful warrior,” Tiger calls Zola. The playfulness is there, but Tiger is the one with the air of a man who’s known war.
Maing keeps the filmmaking straightforward, although he does have a fondness for showing screens of various sorts (television, computer, smartphone). How could he not? They’re almost as much a part of Zola’s and Tiger’s stories as the men themselves. “I used to be a nobody,” Zola says, “until I discovered the Internet.”
The discovering works both ways. The Chinese government is doing its best to prevent that, using its Internet censorship apparatus popularly referred to as the Great Firewall. More than a play on words, that name is also a reminder. The Great Wall may have survived, but none of the dynasties who built it did.