Must-see in Hong Kong: 'My Beijing Birthday'

If you're in Hong Kong tomorrow night, October 23, and you're not hospitalized, in jail, running the control tower at Hong Kong airport, or otherwise in possession of a good excuse for not attending, please get to the Hong Kong Arts Center by 7pm to see a screening of the wonderful hour-long documentary, My Beijing Birthday. Details here.

My wife and I saw a preview screening of the film before a small audience in Beijing back in July. (The audience was small mainly because of the pre-Olympic Beijing security hysteria. Authorities were discouraging or prohibiting gatherings of any size, for any reason, on grounds of general paranoia.) My main reaction after seeing it was the hope that very large audiences would be able to see it soon.

The set-up and plot-line sound bizarre when described. Howie Snyder, a New Yorker and skillful Mandarin-speaker now in his 40s, was in Beijing twelve years ago attending a school for traditional Chinese "cross-talk" stand-up comics. All the other students in the class were Chinese eight-year-olds. They specialize young here. Part of the film is footage of Snyder and his classmates back then; the other part is a revisit to the school this year, showing very dramatically what the passage of time has meant for Snyder, for the city of Beijing, for the tough-but-heart-of-gold director of the school, and for the kids, now age 20.

The film is funny and poignant in its own right; it made me fonder of Beijing than I would otherwise be; and it is one of the most powerful demonstrations of a theme I've tried to get across in most articles for the Atlantic: that this is a great big country not of a billion-person mass but of a billion-plus highly individualistic people.

See it in Hong Kong, or see it someplace else, as Snyder continues to work out distribution deals. (I believe it is now on the film-festival circuit.) You will thank me.