The Iron Ministry is the first film in many years to begin with an overture. Particularly popular with the opulent studio productions of the 1950s and ’60s, the practice of including an orchestral score as prelude to the narrative was intended to provide gravitas to the proceedings as well as act as a transition from the real world to the cinematic. The overture in The Iron Ministry definitely provides the latter, but unlike films such as Ben-Hur, the music is not grasping at majesty. In fact, it’s not really music. As the droning sound plays out we discover that it is not a string section but the straining sound of metal on metal of a train moving along its tracks.
Filmed between 2011 and 2013, The Iron Ministry takes place entirely on trains traversing through China on the world’s largest railway network. The film is another project released under the Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose ascendence among cinephiles has been astronomical in recent years, thanks to a string of well-received releases such as Leviathan and Sweetgrass. The Ethnography Lab’s immersive documentaries have provided some of the most unexpected thrills in cinema as of late and The Iron Ministry is no exception. The film does not possess the formal rigor of something like the glorious gondola ride of Manakamana but that is not what this subject calls for. In fact, it needs the opposite, an embracement of movement and messiness.