Review: “The Transition Period”

A camera pans to the face of a middle-aged Chinese man walking into his office. He has a receding hairline, wire glasses, and a cream-colored suit. At first glance, he is completely unassuming but soon it becomes clear he holds immense power in his position as party secretary in Henan. The Transition Period, directed by Zhou Hao, offers an unprecedented look into his life, his privileges, and his corruption.

Guo Yongchang is a relatively low-level communist official three months from retirement. He spends days on end in meeting after meeting, accepting gifts from his supporters and appeasing his discontents. He travels to party functions that seem the same — congratulatory and teary. Guo relives his days over and over, from car to office to banquet.

The Transition Period does not sugarcoat the bland realities of Guo Yongchang’s tenure. The documentary is a nonfiction equivalent to Groundhog Day, looping endlessly as one day flows into the next. Unlike Bill Murray’s protagonist, who actually strives to break the cycle and see a new day, Guo Yongchang seems to live happily in a mind-numbing pattern. The film needs no re-watching; the almost two hours feel like the three months leading to Guo’s retirement. It is totally exhausting.

The film shows us corruption we assume is already there. In the only remarkable scene in the film, the filmmaker replaces the lens cap on the camera but keeps it running while Guo and his co-workers continue their conversation. They discuss a bribe they’ve received worth thousands of dollars. They feign concern but then decide to keep it.

In another meeting, the camera pans towards Guo and a foreign investor discussing land-use permits for an upcoming 33-story building. It seems that the only way the investor can get through to Guo is to kiss up to him. Their night involves getting drunk, singing karaoke, and smashing birthday cake into each other’s faces.

After Guo’s tearful retirement ceremony, the film ends suddenly in black. Words on the screen detail Guo’s arrest on charges of graft and corruption. It comes as no surprise to anyone watching. Guo’s kingdom has fallen, and it is about time. The movie ends, thankfully, abruptly because after one and a half hours of torturous repetition, no viewer will want to sit through the credits.