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Berlinale 2009: Hanging out at "Doctor Ma's Country Clinic"

There are no examination rooms in Dr. Ma's clinic in Huangyangchuan, a town in rural China: just one space that serves as waiting area, examination room, and pharmacy.  Thus, magically, private chambers of physical maladies and ill complaints by the circumstances, by necessity, become public ones.  With peasants from the town and the mountainous countryside surrounding it gathered in the small room, telling the doctor where it hurts is practically part of the same conversation as whose crops are failing, the health of a son-in-law, and local labor issues.  Is life, lifestyle, and livelihood not a crucial part of one's health?  Cong Feng's nearly four-hour documentary Doctor Ma's Country Clinic may be named after the locally renowned practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, but the film itself is interested not in the practice but rather its atmosphere allowing freedom of complaint, introspection, and social, economic, and emotional comparison.

The film is a no-nonsense, modest monument to the destitute plight of country peasants in this part of China, finding a place (and the time) for them to talk about everything from cheating bosses and deaf officials to brides bought for money who fled the terrible local conditions, and the existential fatalism of the area's ailing elderly population.  In fact, youth and young adults barely seem to show up in Ma's clinic, presumably working or living elsewhere (many must travel away from home to find work), too healthy or busy to complain.  It is an older generation, one that worked through the 1960s and 70s (and is still working today!), that is now feeling the repercussions of their decades-long labor for the meagre reward of a destitute livelihood full of anxiety, constant uncertainty, and constant "ailments," whether they are physical, emotional, or economic.  The clinic and the step outside it becomes like a cafe, saloon, or barbershop, a social place for the community to gather and voice complaints, to tell their stories as if to themselves—like proper patients, they came to complain, even if no one is listening.  The clinic is like a secret outlet, a sactioned area for confession and complaint; Dr. Ma provides the stage, Cong Feng, in unfussy and unpretentious long-take camera coverage gives the time, and the Chinese peasants perform a terribly forlorn drama of a countryside's infirmity.

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