Directed by John Pilger
Documentarian John Pilger (The War On Democracy) looks at the escalating tension between China and the US to see beyond the rhetoric. What he finds is network of island bases and an increasing amount of sabre-rattling, but which side does he see as the aggressor in this prelude to a possible war?
This is an unapologetic Pilger polemic, which at this stage of the game is hardly a surprise. However that constant editorial of poetical narration from Pilger does age this film terribly. Documentary film making has certainly moved on, using a more varied and nuanced approach to convey its story telling. The Coming War On China takes a step back, allowing Pilger to slowly tell us that message in a drawn out account, and it does feel aged and heavy handed for this.
The composition of that argument is also an issue. Constructed over four parts, the real nub of the argument is possibly teased out only in two of the four sections, one addressing China directly, the other addressing the US. The rest concentrates on the effect of American bases on the local population, and the fallout (in some cases literally) this has on environment, health, standard of living, and culture. Hence the bases for the conflict, the means by which it is being escalated, and the ramping up of rhetoric, is given short shift by comparison. Although related, the effects on the island populations (and I by no means diminish the impact the US has had) are in some ways side issues to the main, and blunt the thrust of Pilger’s argument.
It is a disproportionate concentration, the focus on which takes up a lot of valuable time. At two hours this film drags. Although the segments are of interest in themselves, there is a lot that should have been approached with a more editorial eye to create a sleeker film.
Finally there is the one sided nature of the argument. Although The Coming War On China is factually correct, it does simplify some of those facts in its attempt to sway audiences. Given its bloated running time, a more even handed approach may have allowed for more nuance. It also has the stunningly bad luck of suffering from the US election result, as it feels to be looking to demonstrate continuation of US policy from Obama to Clinton. Instead it gets thrown the untested wild card that is Trump. Still an utterly terrifying proposition, but blunts the notion of a long term agenda.
Yet despite the flaws, there is a power here. True that each of the vignettes work better solo than they do placed in the overall whole. Of themselves, however, they are interesting fare, exploring a history of Imperialistic behaviour, and militaristic exploitation. The overall thrust of the argument is obviously terrifying, due to some of the worst possible outcomes, and an insistence on pursuing such sabre-rattling despite the ratcheting tension in the region.
Bloated, and a little self important, The Coming War On China doesn’t deliver the deep delve into the layered topic that it needs to. Yet the nature of what it does explore has an undeniable power in and of itself. By no means a riveting documentary, but it does explore an important topic, and raise many interesting questions.