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Documentary Features Movies

Bazaar Jumpers (Pao Ku Shao Nian, 跑酷少年)

Director – Zhiqiang Hao – 2012 – China – Cert. N/C PG – 61m

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Two Uyghur boys and their parkour team in Northern China hone their skills for an upcoming “China proper” tournament in Beijing – now available to rent online in the new Chinese Cinema Season 2021 in the UK & Ireland as part of the Approaching Reality documentary strand until Wednesday, May 12th

NB.

(1) Please read this review before watching because the recommended N/C PG certificate, while completely legal, perhaps ought to be higher because of one particular sequence (detailed in the final Spoiler Alert paragraph).

(2) The title seems to vary between Bazaar Jumper (singular) and Bazaar Jumpers (plural) on the film’s promotional literature. I’ve gone with the plural as that’s what’s on the film print. The singular is on the trailer below.

Urumqi, Xinjiang, one of the parts of Northern China with a large Uyghur section of the population. That’s not really writ large here, and as I was watching I was wondering what the spoken language was until I worked out it was Uyghur. The film is ostensibly about a group of late teenage, Muslim boys obsessed with parkour (free running), a physical craze in which obstacles such as buildings, walls and street furniture are climbed or traversed rather than gone around. As the documentary proceeds, though, you become aware of a subtle undercurrent: these kids are marginalised by a combination of politics, geography and ethnic origin. They talk about “China proper” meaning the bit where everything happens and in which they themselves don’t happen to live.

The boys have called themselves the ESP Crew. Xerali their leader is motivated by the spectacular acrobatics of movie and martial arts star Jackie Chan and we see him watching the odd movie clip. He believes that if they hone his parkour skills well enough, he too could become a movie star. It’s all about exposure. His dream is to compete in China’s debut upcoming parkour tournament in Beijing. The travel and accommodation required puts it out of reach, but Xerali is determined to raise the money. It proves a bigger task than he imagined. “No-one in China proper knows anything about brands from Xinjiang”, he’s told as he approaches possible sources of finance, “so you won’t find any sponsors.”

Eventually, Xerali manages to get financial help from family members, although their single parent mother despairs at the fact that they won’t go out and get a job to support the family (a conflict with which many arts and sports practitioners have grappled over the years) while the father who abandoned them, when they track him down in a nearby city, claims not to have any money. When Xerali and his team mate Sadam reach Beijing and view the competition course under construction, they are ecstatic. Will they be able to cope with the inevitable pressure of the competition?

This film came about because Zhiqiang was filming the boys in training and helped them put together the video pitch that got two of them into the Beijing competition. This means there’s a lot of footage of them training, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, throwing themselves against walls and so forth. It’s surprisingly compelling, perhaps because you know it to be both real and something tied up with the boys’ deep and heartfelt expectations of what life can offer them. Their discipline in their pursuit of excellence is impressive, with Xerali dropping out of school to concentrate on his training.

At the same time, the self-starter nature of all this puts it outside of any regulatory framework. A warning caption at the start advises viewers not to copy any of the moves shown unless they know exactly what they’re doing. Zhiqiang has good reason for putting this there. A showstopping rooftop to rooftop jumping video about 20 minutes in shows four ESP members in turn leaping from a rooftop to a lower one. Watching successful jumps, it’s easy to forget how dangerous this is.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

After three successful landings, the fourth of the four jumpers doesn’t quite make the distance and we watch horrified as he struggles to cling to the side of the building before dropping out of the bottom of the frame followed by an intertitle explaining that he was badly injured and hospitalised. While the rest of the film is fascinating on its own terms, this particular image resonates so deeply in the subconscious that it’s the one you’ll take away with you from the film, detracting from everything else here. Wisely, the filmmakers have omitted it from the trailer. I’m not enough of a child psychologist to say whether a UK PG rating would be high enough for this, or whether it should in fact be higher. As an adult viewer however I’m glad it wasn’t cut out.

Bazaar Jumpers is now available to rent online in the new Chinese Cinema Season 2021 in the UK & Ireland as part of the Approaching Reality documentary strand until Wednesday, May 12th.

Trailer:

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