By Yun-hua Chen.
Sean Wang, with his unique sensitivity, sharp observation, and a somewhat dry sense of humor, reveals just how surrealist the supply chain system under globalization can be.”
A Marble Travelogue, a coproduction of China, France, Greece, and the Netherlands, premiered at the IDFA Frontlight in 2021. It is the director Sean Wang’s second documentary feature, following his previous Lady of the Harbor (2017) which focuses on a Chinese migrant in the Chinatown of Athens who devoted herself to helping refugees on Lesbos during the crisis.
In his second venture into the Greece-China interface, Sean Wang traces the footsteps of marble. During the Odyssey of globetrotting marble, it is carved out from a Chinese-owned quarry in Greece, and transported from the port Piraeus, which has been bought by the Chinese State Enterprise COSCO, to China. Large pieces are sculpted in Quyang, the Chinese capital of carving, into statues and columns that imitate Greco-Roman classical sculptures, for affluent Chinese consumers crave for European-ambience luxuriousness. Leftover fragments are shaped into fridge magnets and hand-painted by factory workers in Quanzhou, sometimes even their children, and subsequently sent back to tourist destination like Santorini. Chinese tourists, who travel, get married or baptized, and pose for photos next to Santorini’s characteristic white church bell tower against blue sky, proudly bring these souvenirs back to their mansions in China.
Sean Wang, with his unique sensitivity, sharp observation, and a somewhat dry sense of humor, reveals just how surrealist the supply chain system under globalization can be. White marble travels between Greece and China several times, for these two countries’ respective roles as raw material provider, manufacturer, cheap labor provider, wholesaler, and consumer change at different stages of the capitalist food chain. Whereas the Hellenistic glory only remains under the form of copied statues and columns, China buys out a big chunk of their waning economy after the financial crisis. Shifting from a world factory to a world buyer and a gigantic consumer market, China is powerful enough to culturally reappropriate, replicate, remodel and reinvent. Greek marble carved into Hellenistic statues and columns becomes a symbol of wealth and connoisseurship in China’s middle-class. Whereas their state owns some European infrastructure, individuals bring flavors of Europe back to their households.
It is thus a journey à la Theater of the Absurd, which summarizes our age of globalization and late-stage capitalism. With objects multiplied everywhere, innumerable cubes of marble spread out across the quarry; factory workers sit in front of a wide-stretching table covered by fridge magnets while waiting for paints to dry between coats; in Yiwu, China’s wholesale capital, a Greek wholesaler of tourism souvenirs navigates around the maze of countless shops and bargains with a Chinese vendor in English for Greek-themed fridge magnets.
Shifting from a world factory to a world buyer and a gigantic consumer market, China is powerful enough to culturally reappropriate, replicate, remodel and reinvent. Greek marble carved into Hellenistic statues and columns becomes a symbol of wealth and connoisseurship in China’s middle-class.”
Focusing on objects, A Marble Travelogue is deeply humane in fact. While marble’s travel might be grandiose, each individual’s journey, through Sean Wang’s gentle lens, is trivial yet unique. We hear the story of a sculpturer in Quyang whose sculpture was plagiarized in Italy and exhibited under the name of an Italian artist. We see a young mother and her school-age daughter, living in a cramped dorm and preparing their meals on the floor with a rusted pot, spend long hours in a badly ventilated and possibly toxic room painting on mini-statues and fridge magnets. These images of faraway landmarks make their mind wander but confine them in monotonous labor. When the filmmaker offscreen offers to leave some masks behind to protect their health, the girl replies with an innocent smile, “why do I need it? I am not afraid.”
What carries these narrative threads between two nations together is Cypriot twin sisters, Mariana and Sofia Erotokritou. Coming from a very privileged Greek Cypriot family and studying in China, they speak very fluent Chinese. They call themselves “cultural ambassadors” and are baptized as “ambassadors of Greek tourism in China” by the Greek Ministry of Tourism after the making of the film. What these pompous titles imply is that they wear multiple hats; they sell Chinese products to Greece, Greek real estates and island wedding packages to wealthy Chinese clients, and facilitate Golden Visa application, all while busy with being bilingual social media influencers and self-exoticizing themselves by wearing chlamys and floral wreath.
Unjudgmental and with a sense of humor in the most unexpected places, A Marble Travelogue’s light-heartedness, playfulness and relaxed tone disguises profound fear incurred by a second thought. The fear comes from the extreme and still growing wealth discrepancy, regional divide, exploitative capitalist system under the globalization age, neo-colonialism, the general cosying up to China for profits at all expenses, and social immobility which is poignantly felt and painfully visible everywhere. In Sean Wang’s documentary, no one is a villain in this absurd machine, but everyone pushes it forward. A Marble Travelogue skillfully balances between points of view, and absurdism and realism, while smuggling in a tad of doubt and social critique. It almost feels like a contemporary version of Modern Times, but foregrounds the fact that life is stranger than fiction. Without intending to do so, it is a bone-chilling fridge horror.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.