By Liz Chan
19th June 2023

A child brandishes a giant stick as he curses out someone high in the sky. The camera pans to reveal the subject of his anger – a CCTV camera.

'Total Trust', remotely directed by filmmaker Zhang Jialing, is a dark glimpse into the rapidly developing surveillance technology harnessed by the Chinese government. Zhang directed the film remotely from the United States, having been unable to enter China after her previous film, 'One Child Nation' (2019), a documentary about the one-child policy in China that lasted from 1979 to 2015.

Following three stories – a wife and son desperately seeking an answer to a husband's imprisonment, a lawyer released from prison, and an independent journalist - 'Total Trust' paints a bleak picture of activists and human rights lawyers living in a time where every movement seems to be controlled.

Zijuan Chen is the wife of Weiping Chang, who was part of the activists and lawyers arrested in 2015 during the 709 Crackdown. She desperately sends petitions and letters to no avail and brings home life-size cutouts of her husband to her son TuTu as a temporary placeholder. When she tries to buy flowers for him, her negative digital COVID-19 certificate allowing her entry to places is mysteriously turned into an infectious one which prevents her from entering any shop.

In Bejing, Quanzhang Wang struggles to reconnect with his son as he returns after five years in prison after being arrested during the same 709 Crackdown. Plainclothes police officers barricade his house to prevent him from leaving to speak at a human rights summit, and his wife finds videos posted with her face on Douyin (the local TikTok) causing the account to get taken down.

'Total Trust' paints a bleak picture of activists and human rights lawyers living in a time where every movement seems to be controlled.

Journalist Sophia Huang Xuequin started attracting attention with her involvement during the #MeToo movement. She speaks to the anonymous cinematographer about her plans to get a university education in the UK before moving back to China to continue her efforts against surveillance and jokes about reading '1984' to the camera installed across her window until it was taken away on the fourth day. Bleakly, the end credits tell us she never made it out - being arrested and thrown in prison before her flight to the UK.

With these stories, 'Total Trust' is an insight into lives under social credit scores and AI recognition. As cinematographers and other crew members are credited anonymously and Zhang remotely directs, a sense of urgency comes through the screen that grabs every watcher. While the film does struggle in pacing itself at moments, it is still a gripping and thought-provoking watch about life under technology many may simply deem as futuristic technology - which may not be so futuristic after all.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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