The International Steam Pages
Logging Off DVD
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The Weihe Forestry Railway was one of a large number of similar narrow gauge railways in northern China built to exploit large stands of timber and operated by steam locomotives. As the 20th century closed, one by one the railways either shut as the forests became logged out or converted to diesel traction. By 2002/3, only at Weihe did steam reign supreme and this DVD is a tribute to the people who operated the railway and brought in the logs that it carried in its final season. Only in the depths of the Manchurian winter could felling and transportation take place and the harsh conditions are perfectly captured here. Follow the timber cutters as they camp out in the forest and fight their way through snowdrifts to bring down the logs to the loading points. Watch the locomotives with steam leaking from every joint as they constantly battle to get the empty wagons out and bring the full ones back. Go behind the scenes as steam locomotives on their last legs are prepared in equally hostile conditions, often in the open as the snow streams down. Meet the loco crews and other staff who cheerfully work on, knowing that, in just a few more weeks, their jobs will be lost and, like the railway itself, they will be thrown on the scrap heap.
The material for this DVD was filmed by two independent Chinese film producers Du Jianbin and Chen Yuehong who spent 4 months shooting in Weihe and the surrounding area. It was recorded in DV-AVI format and the result is a 55 minute broadcast quality film. This is not just another steam video, it was described by one enthusiast as 'National Geographic stuff' and it is simply one of the best railway videos produced in recent years.
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Past readers of these reviews may recall that I was not always particularly convinced by the videos which were offered for review. All too often these consisted of a dreary procession of passing trains, mostly unimaginatively filmed, interspersed with some “local colour” shots, the purpose of which was not always evident. We have now of course gone digital and DVDs are rapidly replacing videos. Few will mourn their passing. The first DVD for review bears ample witness to the quantum leap in image quality. It is also an outstanding piece of work.
Du Jianbin and Chen Yuehong’s Logging Off is simply one of the most satisfying steam railway films I’ve ever seen. Its 55 minutes document, in the widest sense of the word, operations on the 762mm gauge Weihe forestry railway in northern China in the winter of 2002-03, the final season of what was the last steam-worked forestry railway in that vast country. And it was armed with this knowledge that two professional film makers set out to record both a steam railway and a way of life that had lasted over half a century (Weihe had been opened in 1950). In this they have succeeded brilliantly.
The resulting film is, like a game of football, very much one of two halves. One is devoted to the steam-worked narrow gauge line as its Soviet designed 0-8-0s, leaking steam at every joint, struggle manfully for one last winter to move the felled logs. This is recorded in a mixture of both rather conventional shots (some of which are perhaps a wee on the static side) and more imaginatively conceived and executed ones (check out the train silhouetted by a full moon): the blend is good and well edited. There are some very moody night scenes and the shots of preparing the locos and carrying out the hasty repairs necessary to keep them running are also well handled, as are those showing operations along the line. The scene of a rather plump and bored lady railway worker doing her knitting whilst awaiting the next train is priceless.
The steam action is good and alone would justify the purchase of this DVD. But that would be a pity for as mentioned this is a film of two halves. The second, which is seamlessly cut into the first, examines thoughtfully and sympathetically the hard and dangerous lives of the men who eked out a livelihood cutting or transporting the wood. The two film makers spent the best part of four months working on their project and sharing the at times primitive living conditions of the loggers and loco crews: they clearly were able to win the trust of the workers who ignore the camera and are able to go about and discuss lives quite unselfconsciously. This produces one of the highlights of the film as a loco crew, who like all the railwaymen at Weihe are shortly to be made redundant, talk about their futures on the footplate of their C2 class 0-8-0. Here within a few minutes are both bathos and humour, as well as references to the film “Midnight Cowboy” and Viagra. The film concludes with some short black & white scenes of the railway being lifted: how quickly a way of life that must have seemed so permanent can disappear. These are scenes which in fact could have been recorded anywhere over the last half a century as the world de-industrialises. The themes of the film are universal and you certainly do not have to be particularly interested in either China or its steam locomotives to be fascinated by it.
My first reaction to seeing Logging Off was “Wow!” Having viewed it now some half a dozen times I would not change this assessment. Logging Off is a splendid achievement and deserves the widest possible audience.