At a 1997 conference of the Australian Screen Directors Association, the celebrated local filmmaker Bob Connolly made a splash by decrying our national tendency to make safe, sober, "correct" documentaries.
He called for documentary cinema to be as rigorous, entrancing and exciting as fiction cinema – and urged that it be judged against the highest standards of the film medium.
Sally Ingleton's Mao's New Suit will do nothing to help the cause of documentary filmmaking in Australia. It is a dull, superficial and thoroughly disappointing treatment of a potentially terrific subject.
The project must have looked good on paper: an investigation into China's burgeoning fashion industry in the post-Mao period. All the style and glamour suppressed during the grey days of Maoism is now struggling to surface, and two young designers lead the revolution in everyday manners.
These two women seem pleasant enough, but their chats and trips hardly make for riveting footage.
Ingleton starts with Guo Pei, who runs a clothing factory and works doggedly towards a more creative career. Her associate, Sun Jian, begins as a "personal designer" for ordinary folk. The two friends team up to stage a fashion parade of their designs in a rather unglamorous university hall in Shanghai.
Despite the occasional mouth-watering snippet about the role of clothes and style in Chinese lives, Mao's New Suit fails at every level. It provides no useful contextual information concerning the fashion industry in China. Scenes of family members interacting are contrived and perfunctory. The usual bland and condescending voice-over narration is replaced by cartoonish titles that are even blander and more condescending.
Worst of all, the film exhibits no real feeling for its colourful topic – it may be the least stylish film ever made about style. The supposed Big Moment on the catwalk is poorly and unimaginatively filmed, flicking from colour stock to black-and-white video as if in parody of the splendid American doco Unzipped (1995) – a completely entertaining and affectionate portrait from which Ingleton could have learnt a great deal.
ANOTHER fashion doco: Catwalk
© Adrian Martin October 1997