Måns Månsson, Stranded in Canton, 2014. All rights reserved.Director Måns Månsson, with his co-writers Li Hongqi and George Cragg, explores Sino-African commercial ties through the life of Lebrun, a Congolese farmer who chases the dream of a more affluent life as a makeshift businessman all the way to China’s Guangzhou, only to face harsh disillusionment.
Månsson’s film Stranded in Canton addresses the sense of dissatisfaction that arises in a social context where as trade, investment and wealth are perceived to be growing, one’s humbler life no longer suffices and the fear of being excluded from the capital accumulation race kicks in.
As a tragicomedy bordering on the absurd, Stranded in Canton also explores the Sino-African culture clash without ever falling into clichés.
Sino-African economic ties have ballooned in the last three decades, with China outstripping the US in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner as well as becoming a key source of foreign direct investment (FDI) for most of sub-Saharan Africa.
By focusing on Lebrun’s story, Månsson’s fictional documentary highlights a facet of the Sino-African commercial narrative that is often ignored. Most attention is given to the socio-political and environmental implications of Chinese trade and FDI in African territories. But Stranded in Canton focuses on the dynamics behind those tens of thousands of African supercargoes that every year finalise deals with the manufacturing industry in Guangzhou.
Lebrun abandons his life as a fish and land farmer in Kinshasa to tie up a deal in Guangzhou for shirts with the slogan “Votez Kabila” in support of presidential candidate Joseph Kabila, who won the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2001. The Chinese manufacturer delays delivery until after the elections, leaving Lebrun stuck in Guangzhou for almost a year with a batch of shirts that have become unsellable and no money to return home. To solve this issue, Lebrun thinks of changing the shirts’ logo to an anti-Kabila slogan and of selling them to the opposition — a plan that fails miserably.
The enthusiasm at the beginning of Lebrun’s journey makes room for painful disillusionment. “When a man sees an opportunity, he jumps at it,” he says of his choice to travel to Guangzhou. “If you see an opportunity you don’t let it pass you by.” Yet, in a merciless business world where everyone is desperate to get ahead, there is no room for idealists nor the naive, like Lebrun.
Our hero learns the ruthlessness of business the hard way. Ruthless is his own Congolese business partner who abandons him to his fate in Guangzhou and ruthless is China’s manufacturing boom, portrayed in the film by a bleak Guangzhou garment factory working on Lebrun’s clothes. Just as ruthless are Lebrun’s acquaintances — his lover Sylvie; Wassim, an odd Lebanese man who warehouses Lebrun’s shirts; and Frank, a Chinese man who is part translator, part colleague — who all finally give up on Lebrun.
In a city of 8.5 million people whose vastness and chaos are highlighted by still shots of busy streets and neon lights “that never turn off”, Lebrun is ultimately left alone to fight his fight.
Månsson addresses the allure of the “businessman”, at a time when “making a lot of money” has become an obsession. Lebrun’s line, “I am a businessman”, becomes a leitmotif, as if repeating it will solve his absurd situation and make him a true entrepreneur. He lies about his true identity as a farmer to retain credibility, but ultimately loses even Sylvie’s support once she realises he has deceived her.
With denial and no feasible solution to his problem comes paralysis. Lebrun lives the same day time and time again: the same Guangzhou skyline frame marks the beginning of every day; the same scene of Lebrun counting money in a cubicle marks his working days; Lebrun wears, washes and wears again the same clothes throughout the entire film.
Struggle and malaise are also portrayed through sheer physical reaction to the Chinese city. Facial close-ups show Lebrun dripping profusely. The languidly obese Wassim is also stained with sweat. Wassim may be more successful, but his life is nonetheless absurd, spent constantly lying on a cot in his warehouse and driving a moped even for the shortest of distances.
The film’s tragicomic tone accentuates the absurdity of Lebrun’s situation and addresses the culture clash issue with no cheap laughs. The overdue T-shirt delivery in itself is humorous. Even more comical is Lebrun’s proposition to change the shirts’ slogan to “Fuck, shit, down Kabila” — because “in marketing you use these big words to attract the eyes of the people” — in order to sell them to Congo’s opposition after the election.
There is also comic relief in Lebrun’s culture clash with the local community, including scenes of him using an outdoor gym in total silence with a Chinese man, or singing Lionel Richie’s “All night long” at a karaoke parlour with Frank.
Stranded in Canton also explores the thorny relationship between the Guangzhou locals and the African expat community through Sylvie. She is a successful businesswoman in Guangzhou, but is no fan of Chinese business practices. “Always expect the worst. You have to be really careful with them. Even if you’ve dealt with them 15 years you can’t fully trust the Chinese. They always fuck you over somehow. That goes for all Chinese people,” she says to Lebrun.
In a final symbolic gesture, Lebrun takes his first executive decision of the entire film and burns all the shirts. As he drives off in the distance on the notes of “All night long,” one cannot help but feel this ironic choice of song confirms Lebrun is bound to remain stranded in Canton. He is still the same idealistic, naive dreamer he was when he first arrived in Guangzhou and still does not know how to play a game where the locals, whom he has yet to understand, make all the rules.
“I know one thing for sure. They’re pretty strange people,” says Lebrun to Sylvie during one of their tête-à-têtes. “They’re not strange. They’re just Chinese,” she replies.
Stranded in Canton is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival on 17 June 2015.