Boasting exceptional cinematography by Mårten Nilsson, Conquering China is a sumptuously colourful portrait of present-day Shanghai’s electro scene, as experienced by Stockholm-born filmmaker Johan Jonason, who goes there in pursuit of an eternally elusive career as a techno-pop singer. As the film’s promotional tagline notes, Jonason finds that ‘music is not a language without borders’: arriving on these Far East shores handsomely equipped to fail, his naïve Eurocentrism is soon caught short.
Musically, Jonason is best known for singing on disco-pop tracks by Swedish producers Axel Boman and Petter Nordvisk under the moniker Man Tear, but he previously appeared in his own 2012 fiction short Dance Music Now, in which individual neuroses and crises in confidence impede someone’s pop career from flourishing to the extent they desire. It’s a combination of these two personalities—his own real-life success as a recording artist and a deadpan comic incarnation of thick-skinned narcissism—with which Jonason visits Shanghai, quoting the lofty likes of Marco Polo and Lord Macartney, the 18th century British statesman whose 1794 observation, that “Nothing could be more fallacious than to judge of China by any European standard,” opens the film.
It’s difficult to know if Conquering China is a sincere attempt at documentary or a deadpan sketch of epic self-deprecation. Presumably, it intends to be both: scenes in which Jonason pesters several Chinese producers, making the locally estimable likes of Elvis T, DJ Dave K and DJ Ghost sit through his self-made tunes, are interspersed with talking heads from Jean Michel Jarre and Swedish pianist Robert Wells, two European musicians whose art has proved to be encouragingly pan-cultural. It’s Jonason’s own humourless, seemingly unironic voice-over that makes the blend so ambiguous: “I’m a singer. I have my own kind of energy when I sing,” he says over images not unlike those of Klaus Kinski at the beginning of Werner Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend (1999), in which the late German actor performs in character as an angry Jesus Christ.
From a phrase like “my own kind of energy” we might infer that Jonason isn’t very good to begin with—or is at least too convinced of his own unique selling points. It makes for some amusingly awkward encounters, in which the Swede comes across like Rupert Pupkin dressed as Christopher Nolan: most amusingly when Dave K bursts into laughter after Jonason suggests they do a radio stint or even a live gig together, and most excruciatingly when he’s lost in translation during a meeting with DJ Ghost, who wants to use Jonason’s vocals after all, but with a catch—something not even their interpreter can get across.
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We caught 'Conquering China' at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Stay tuned for a release date.