Recorded between 2011 and 2013 aboard trains across China, the documentary "The Iron Ministry" eavesdrops on passengers and crew but mostly shows rail travel in China as a nauseating experience: overcrowded with smokers sporting bad haircuts, butchered meat and hanging organs still dripping blood inside the moving train, cigarette butts floating on yellow water while trash piles up on the floor.
Filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki withholds judgment and resists editorializing, but the result is frustratingly nebulous and devoid of context. He makes no effort to establish time and place, leaving viewers to decipher what they can. In one scene, a guard denies him access inside a particular car, but Sniadecki does not investigate further. The reason could have been as innocuous as protecting the privacy of first-class passengers, but it's anyone's guess.
Occasionally Sniadecki stumbled onto interesting bits, such as Muslims in China. An oblivious and possibly delusional Chinese man denounces other authoritarian regimes and praises China's embrace of ethnic and religious minorities. When Sniadecki finally comes across a Tibetan toward the end, she muses on transportation and mining. A filmmaker with better instincts surely would have pushed harder for more.
"The Iron Ministry."
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.
Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.