China is host to a great many completely bonkers theme parks, but one of its most notorious and morally icky is the Kingdom of Little People. Inspired by Snow White, it's a fake fantasy town populated by over a hundred dwarves who hang out, take pictures with, and perform shows for the exclusively normal-sized patrons. The costumes are based on Lord of the Rings but come across as generic, poorly-made fantasy garb. The gift shops sell ripoff Disney dwarf memorabilia. Voiceovers in the park assure the patrons they’re doing quality charity work by attending. It’s nuts.
Dwarves Kingdom takes viewers inside the park and tells the stories of its performers - singers, dancers, tightrope walkers, strongmen - as well as of the park itself. There’s the boy who dreams of being tall, the girl whose father refused to pay for hormone supplements, the woman with aspirations of becoming a movie star. Many of the performers interviewed genuinely love performing, and though some, like show MC Gao Yan, acknowledge the park’s reputation as a human zoo, they all hope that patrons will see the strength of the little people: their minds, their hopes, their dreams.
Everyone wants to believe the park is a refuge for little people - from the Avatar-loving CEO claiming it’s about finding happiness and love, while underpaying his employees and barring them from talking to the press, to the employees themselves, desperate to cling to some semblance of hope. But behind all the platitudes, everyone involved seems to know this is a lie. The people who come to the park do so for one reason: to gawp at the funny little people and to take tacky fucking selfies with them. If the place were packed, there might be some vestige of dignity in the performances, but we only ever see it sparsely populated, the main amphitheatre bleachers almost entirely empty. The overwhelming atmosphere is one of sadness and desperation - performers have left the Kingdom only to find themselves returning to the only place that will employ them. This is a truly compelling human story.
So how can a movie about such fascinating, bizarre, moving subject material be so damned dull?
The problem lies not with the film’s meditative tone or its observational, detached documentary style - those are entirely appropriate to the stories on display - but with the breadth of its storytelling, at the expense of focus. It’s unclear what the specific story is here - with many subjects and narrative threads going nowhere, it feels more suited to a television format than cinema.
It’s easy to be over-sensitive to this, but there’s also a voyeuristic side to this movie that’s occasionally hard to stomach. Director Matthew Salton shoots dance numbers in lengthy, static wides, cutting off the theme-park audience. They play like private shows just for us, and it’s unnerving, which admittedly is probably intentional. It’s hard to avoid the freak-show element when we’re watching ultra slow motion video of a dwarf pulling a ball bearing through his nose and out his eye. We’re gawping as much as we are learning.
One of the most depressing movies of the year for its false hope as much as its dehumanisation, Dwarves Kingdom is seventy minutes long but feels like two hours. It’s full of great stories, but its large-scale storytelling slides objectively around the screen without coming to any conclusion or resolution. Maybe that’s the point, but I kept wanting the film to take a stand on something.
As it is, it’s still a document of a truly one-of-a-kind place. It’s not a place you’d ever want to visit, but in documentary form, you can watch without destroying your conscience.