Zhang Jialing’s Total Trust (2023) closely examines China’s futuristic, high-tech surveillance state by following the lives of those trapped in it. At times, the latest project from the co-director of 2019 Sundance winner One Child Nation feels more like dystopian fiction than a documentary. The film’s most chilling moments are when we are reminded it’s the latter.
The film opens not with footage of cameras or monitors, but rather with a scenic view of Beijing's brightly lit skyline and booming, golden fireworks. Jialing presents an image of a prospering and proud society—not one that is being carefully watched at every turn. In cult-like fashion, a chorus of Chinese citizens wave flags and sing praises to the state. “After much suffering, I realized only the Chinese Communist Party can build a new China,” they proclaim in unison. But amidst this picturesque, bellowing city and its cheery people, something is obviously eerie; the film’s music changes its tune. It’s precisely beneath this guise of safety and national pride that China’s surveillance mechanisms take place, the film seems to say, and then asks: How does a country transform fear into loyalty?
Total Trust hones in on three main subjects and their families: the lawyer Chang Weiping, who was arrested in 2020 for “subversion of state power;” Wang Quanzhang, one of more than 300 human-rights lawyers and activists arrested during the 709 Crackdown in 2015; and the journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin, who reported on Chang Weiping’s case. The latter is under close watch by the police due to her coverage of Weiping’s disappearance, along with her position as a leading activist in the country's #MeToo movement.
The three stories told in Total Trust are maddening in their acute sense of powerlessness. With every step toward progress or justice, the government’s grip only gets tighter—breaking up families, futures, and perceptions of self. At one point, Weiping’s wife likens her existence to that of an animal in a cage.
In a sobering scene, Tutu, Weiping’s pre-teen son, kisses a cardboard cutout of his father and asks his mom about others who have disappeared alongside him: “If they have rights, why suppress them?” China’s surveillance state is so embedded into its society that only a child, one whose sense of right and wrong has not yet been corrupted, can realize that something doesn’t make sense.
From perfectly calculated social-credit ledgers to neighbors spying on neighbors, Total Trust exposes China’s shocking network of policies and programs intended to ensure the government has utmost control over its citizens. Jialing’s human-centered approach to a harrowing investigation into one of the world’s most expansive surveillance states attends to the heartbreaking realities of so many. Their lives are the stuff of our most cynical dystopian novels.
Total Trust opens tonight, December 8, at Film Forum.