National televised singing contests raise the hopes of young singers and fill their heads with dreams of fame and fortune. “Idol” franchises bank on these hopes and dreams in countries around the world. For a couple years China offered the “Super Girl” singing contest, and Jian Yi’s Super, Girls (2007) follows 10 girls who auditioned during the year before the show was canceled by the Chinese government.
The singing contest is the least interesting part of this documentary. While the girls speculate wildly about competition rigging and corrupt judges, they provide other offhand commentary that proves more interesting for its insights into contemporary Chinese culture.
Much of these insights come from Wang Yunan, a teenage philosopher who shares observations on anything and everything, from sexuality to family, from her docile mother to her remarried father, from her enjoying independence to her seeking companionship. Much like the documentary’s style, she flows from subject to subject without much of a pause. Even though her father supports her, she still sells pens to other contestants to raise money for clothes and dinner for her and her mother.
Class distinctions emerge among the contestants. Most of them come from some money, dressing fashionably, driving nice cars, and carrying cell phones. Part of that dressing fashionably pushes gender boundaries, in that many girls wear short haircuts and baggy clothes in attempts to look androgynous.
They contrast with a girl from the countryside who hopes to change her destiny. She comes from a very poor home and dresses in a dowdy khaki dress and carries a canteen.
Though not the driving force, the competition gets an occasional look from the director. Aiming the camera at a television screen, he records Wang Yunan’s audition. She sings well, but she forgets the lyrics and laughs nervously while trying to play it cool with the judges.
Jian Yi’s style is stubbornly observational, which allows a sense of intimacy in the recording of these girls and their lives. The competition offers some impetus for the events, but the competition — or much else, for that matter — contributes little to moving the ideas forward. The choice in footage reflects that in that we see the girls waiting around or hanging out with each other, not practicing or warming up for their auditions. In this case the tactics work in allowing us to listen in on their thoughts and to learn more about their perspectives on contemporary China.