The ‘Tank Man’ of Tiananmen Square is one of the most famous men of history we know absolutely nothing about. An iconic figure around the world but almost unknown in his homeland thanks to state censorship, his name – and everything else about him – remains a mystery.
Was he part of the protests or just passing by? What was he carrying in his shopping bags? While the footage taken of him at the time shows him being led back into the crowd after his attempt to block the line of oncoming tanks, nobody knows what happened to him after that. Rumours are many and varied, from his being shot by firing squad to living peacefully in the United States.
Now with four-part series Chimerica, this thirty-year-old mystery is given an intriguing new spin.
In the series, adapted by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood from her own award-winning play of the same name, the Tank Man photo was taken by fictitious photojournalist Lee Berger (initially played by Ty Simpkins). It’s a tense sequence, with Lee taking photos of the unknown man holding up a line of Chinese tanks as troops are banging on his hotel room door. Photos taken, he stashes his camera in the toilet’s cistern just as the troops barge in. Here’s hoping none of the soldiers have to use the rest room.
The show itself admits that, just like in real life, other photographers took similar shots (it’s not like the world wasn’t paying attention to Tiananmen Square). It’s partly composition and partly a quirk of fate that made the image taken by Time magazine’s Jeff Widener the iconic take.
That mix of factors (would the images have been as powerful if they’d been taken from a different angle?) becomes essential to the story Chimerica is telling: if so many different elements have to come together just right to make an image newsworthy, is it really so bad to try and tip the balance?
Come 2016 and Berger (now played by Alessandro Nivola) has become a man who’s built an entire career on the back of that one photo. He’s now working for a New York daily paper where thoughtful editor Frank Sams (F. Murray Abraham) is patting him on the back over his latest scoop: a shot of a bleeding mother cradling her dead son in the aftermath of a bomb blast while a Syrian solider points a gun at her head.
Then it all comes crashing down. With the Trump campaign pushing fake news into the spotlight, Berger – now being sent to China to cover a business conference where American voters are being urged to vote Republican – is forced to admit his Syrian photo isn’t quite what it seems. Interestingly, not everyone is immediately willing to throw him in the bin. His editor is willing to give him a second chance while a war correspondent friend is outraged at his actions. As for his colleague Tessa (Sophie Okonedo), who he hooked up with on the flight to China… well, as far as she’s concerned, who doesn’t photoshop things every now and again?
Then Berger comes up with a plan to restore his reputation. He’s going to find the subject of his most famous picture. It’s a long shot, but he still has one connection that can help. Thirty years ago Berger’s friend Zhang Lin (Terry Chen) was a protestor at Tiananmen Square. His wife was killed there and since then he’s drifted through life. Hallucinating that his dead wife is living in his fridge doesn’t suggest he’s the most reliable of guides – Berger’s last chance at restoring his reputation is even more of a long shot than it first seemed…
For the American characters the drama here is largely about abstract ideas. Truth, integrity, moving into a world where these ideas are increasingly meaningless; Berger may be desperately trying to avoid a slippery slope, but it’s increasingly clear that for at least some of those around him this new world isn’t so very different from the old.
It’s Zhang Lin’s story that makes this more than just an especially assured international thriller. The Western characters might be outraged or concerned about the world to come, but he’s a shattered man, living in a country that’s already busy erasing its past.
At one point Berger meets a waitress who doesn’t even know anything ever happened in Tiananmen Square. It’s no wonder Zhang Lin is this sharp, gripping series’ broken heart: how do you deal with your grief when your nation is trying to convince its citizens your loss never even happened?
Chimerica airs over two weeks in double episodes: the first two episodes screen on Thursday, 23 May and the final two on Thursday, 30 May at 8.30 pm on SBS. Catch the episodes at SBS On Demand after broadcast.
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