Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 10, 2010 2:20 pm 
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"Push! Don't Push!" (voices from the crowd mounting a train)

Last Train Home is a particularly sad and wearying example among a number of documentaries about human upheaval and the destruction of traditions and family values in today's China. A hundred and twenty million Chinese workers in far-flung places hurry back home every Chinese New Year, a vast temporary "migration," and the only time in the year divided families are reunited. Using the microcosm approach, the Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Lixan Fan chronicles the vicissitudes of this massive journey and the impact of separations for the rest of the year by latching onto one small family, the Zhangs, who come from a farm in a remote area to work in Guangzhou, a major industrial city in the south. The parents of two children, Chen Suqin and her husband Zhang Changhua, left sixteen years ago to earn money to support the kids.

The family was dirt poor, the grandmother tells us. She and her late husband were left with the task of raising Chen's and Changhua's daughter Qin and younger son Yang. Yang is in school, fifth in the class, which his parents don't like. He should be number one. "I don't want to work too hard," he says. What does he care? His parents only come to tell him this once a year, at the time of that vast New Years "migration." Yang, Qin, and their parents aren't often in touch. They don't have cell phones.

In the case of teenage daughter Qin, the resentment is huge. She outspokenly declares that her parents abandoned her for most of her young life and she can't forgive them for this. She feels the country is a "sad place." This leads to the deepest irony of the film because she quits school to go away and work first in a garment factory, later in a cocktail bar in a boom town. This despite the fact that the purpose of her parents going away to work was so she and her brother could rise above peasant or laborer status through better education. It doesn't look like Qin is going to do that.

Yang is in middle school. Those words of his justifying fifth place in class, however, show that he, like Qin, is probably abandoning the traditional values of hard work and sacrifice -- values that fueled China's economic boom, but now are being undermined by it. Because of the boom, evident everywhere, even the poorest of the poor are seduced by glitzy fantasies of easy wealth and giddy fun. And the enormous displacements caused by the boom in themselves make the Chinese family structure grow weaker.

The film seamlessly follows Qin and her parents and documents several of the New Years migrations. The trip begins with days of struggle to get tickets and the last trip teeters on the verge of becoming a full-fledged humanitarian disaster. Masses of people wait in the station for five days, herded by terrified cops. This is when Chunghua has gone to see Qin and persuade her to come back with them. He and Suqin are hoping Qin will go back to school. Instead, perhaps because of the enormous stresses of the journey, the film descends into Jerry Springer territory upon arrival and in front of Grandma and the camera father and daugher have a huge verbal and physical fight. Qin addresses her father in foul and abusive language and he beats her, and she strikes back. Later Qin goes elsewhere and the film shows her briefly working in a huge noisy cocktail bar, which is crudely contrasted by rapid crosscutting with the parents' numbing sweatshop work and the quietude and beauty of the farmland from whence they all came. The cocktail waitress phase recalls another Canadian documentary about China, Chang Yung's award-winning Up the Yangtze, a film on which Lixin Fan, a Canadian who immigrated from China, worked as associate producer, translator and sound recordist. Up the Yangtze focuses on human upheavals caused by the Three Gorges Dam, as does Jia Zhang-ke's fictional Still Life. Another semi-documentary about social change in China that has earned much praise is Jia's 24 City.

Nothing can equal the magic of Still Life or Jia Zhang-ke's other films about modern China. The family interchanges in Up the Yangtze were similar to Last Train's, but were more subtle and hopeful. The impression that remains from Lixin Fan's film is the sullen defiance of the children and the weariness in the parents' faces, and the skillful documentation of the horrific crowds cramming into holiday trains. A documentarian sticks with his or her subjects, and Fan does this faithfully, but one may perhaps be forgiven for wishing a more interesting, articulate family had been chosen. Because there is no narration, you would have to read the press kit that goes with the film to know that the Zhangs were prevented by law from taking their children with them; that migrant workers like the Zhangs are cruelly discriminated against; and that a large number of them, perhaps a third, are girls 17-25 years old, like Qin.

This film is vivid and some of the images are fine. This is a strong first film by the young Lixin Fan. Chunghua and Chen provided remarkably intimate (perhaps too intimate) access, but the "human interest" fly-on-the-wall focus can limit a documentary's scope and narrow the amount of information it conveys. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a couple thousand words can be worth a thousand pictures. A few brief interviews with young men on the migrants' New Years train are glimpses of a broader view. One man says he works at a place stringing tennis rackets for all the major foreign brands, but that China has no tennis racket brand of its own. We are just a country of suppliers, he says, and we get paid the minimum price. Despite its boom economy China is still full of very poor, exploited people, and the whole country is like one giant exploited migrant worker. In his own statement of purpose for the film, Fan wrote, "China’s booming economy is largely based on exploiting the vast population of cheap labor. Sacrificing the poor for GDP growth, the country runs the risk of making millions of families separated and their children (wind up) uneducated. These issues could all pose serious backlash against the country’s ambitious goal."

Last Train Home won the Best Feature-Length Documentary award at the 22nd International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and was nominated for a similar award at Sundance. It was shown at the March-April New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center and MoMA in New York.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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