Reflections on Smog Town

by Chang Xu (TOA Volunteer)

The original – and arguably more romantic – title is: Looking at the Stars from a Distance.

A worker in an orange worksuit stands in an empty road, with a vehicle behind them, surrounded by thick layers of smog.
Still from Smog Town (2019)

My name is Chang, and I’m a film student currently residing in Glasgow. I have always been aware of the impact that films can have, but volunteering for Take One Action has enhanced my understanding of the connection between cinema and change. Don’t get me wrong, I still like myself a bit of the “Harry Met Sally” narrative now and again, but I feel that documentaries have a remarkable power to be sobering and inspiring in a way that is often absent from the Hollywood blockbuster bubble.

I anticipate that most people watching Smog Town as part of Take One Action Film Festival will be non-Chinese viewers. As a Chinese national, I thought it would be useful to present my take on the film – and see how it may differ from yours.

The film explores the issue of air pollution in Langfang, a town situated near Beijing. It centres human experience, and instead of interviewing experts or scientists, Smog Town introduces us to a variety of people whose lives are affected by the smog. From government officials to business owners and ordinary citizens, the fight against air pollution is explored through their different perspectives, reflecting the shared responsibility for its cause as well as the wide repercussions of the policies introduced to tackle it.

In China, environment is inextricable from political achievement and economic growth, and the fight for environmental protection often seems to be at the cost of people’s livelihoods. In an interview with Tencent (2020), director Han Meng (韩萌) explains that she wants politicians to understand the impact of their smog-fighting decisions on citizens: some people simply cannot afford more sustainable ways of living and the reality is that the policies they introduce disproportionately affect the poorest.

As a filmmaker with journalistic background, Han Meng has a knack for uncovering the inner workings of her protagonists: “It’s in my genes”, she says. One of her main protagonists, Deputy Director of Langfang Environmental Protection Bureau Li Chun-yuan, is passionate about environmental protection, and Meng succeeds in capturing the intensity of his emotions. In fact, she captures several tearful moments in well-observed scenes that offer a poignancy that one might not expect in a film about environmental policymakers.

Still from Smog Town (2019): Li Chun-yuan

In recent years, China has implemented a range of policies for environmental protection: the government now subsidises new energy vehicles (e.g. electric cars) and recycling has also improved across the country (with celebrities making trips to recycling centres to celebrate those who work there). Whether this amounts to propaganda or not, I consider this a positive change and Smog Town shows how officials like Li Chun-yuan seem to be sacrificing their family and personal time in the process.

Source : Tencent (2020) 雾霾纪录片《遥望繁星》导演韩萌访谈

Interview with Han Meng, director of the documentary Smog Town, available at: [last accessed on 28/07/2020]

Watch Smog Town at #TOAFF20 (Recommended viewing time: 7.00pm, Tue 22 Sept)

Smog Town Live Q&A (8.30pm, Tue 22 Sept)

Facebook event: Smog Town + Live Q&A