Eric Dalle: "Last Train Home and Questions about Chinese Postsocialist Documentaries"

Monday, February 14, 2011

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[AsiaLENS is a documentary and independent film series hosted by the Asian Educational Media Service (AEMS) that holds screenings, lectures, and discussions every semester. The events are free and open to the public. Below Eric Dalle, a graduate student affiliate in Comparative and World Literatures and East Asian Languages and Cultures, writes on this semester’s first screening, Fan Lixin’s 2009 documentary Last Train Home about migrant workers and their yearly trip home for Chinese New Year. For more information about the AsiaLENS series and the screenings for this semester see the series' website.]

Written by Eric Dalle (Comparative and World Literatures and East Asian Languages and Cultures)

Last Train Home follows the annual homecoming of a married migrant worker couple, Changhua and Suqin, between 2006 and 2008. They work in Guangzhou in the textile industry and have two children living in a rural village of Sichuan Province who are being raised by their grandmother. The film offers a parallel description of travail: the physical and logistic difficulties of returning home during Chinese New Year and the emotional consequences of such a trip. The oldest child, Qin, now seventeen years old, begins to show animosity toward her parents and only credits her grandparents with having raising her. Despite her parents’ opposition, Qin leaves home and thus abandons all educational opportunities to find work in Guangdong Province. A deep animosity develops between the girl and her parents, ending in a severance of communicative ties. Qin wanders through various jobs in the manufacturing and entertainment industries. The rift among family members begins to take a toll on the father’s physical and psychological health, putting into question the family’s very reason for existence—earning money for the betterment of the children and once a year returning home to enjoy time together at Chinese New Year.

In her concluding remarks, Dr. Nancy Jervis offered insight into several cultural factors which need to be taken into consideration while reading this film. To begin with, the practice of leaving children to be raised by grandparents is not the recent byproduct of globalization. Since antiquity, it has been acceptable, and understandable in the context of culturally strong familial bonds, for grandparents to assume a fundamental supporting hand in raising children. Therefore, the "dramatic" fate of the Zhang family should not be seen as filial alienation associated with rapid industrialization, though work in industry provides the economic impetus for the mother and father to live elsewhere during most of the year. Rather, what is peculiar to this documentary is the festering and at times inexplicable hatred of Qin for her parents. Secondly, when Qin decides to leave home for work in Guangzhou, she forgoes all educational opportunities, which are administered through the local government, meaning that she has entered a point of no return. University is no longer an option. She has become a migrant worker.

Chinese documentaries have flourished since the 1990s. Part of this is due to the availability of digital technologies which facilitate filming and distribution. These new works have developed a distinctive style by shifting from the scripted documentaries of the 1980s (for example, the multi-part series Heshang, also released as River Elegy, 1988) as well as from the works of the 90s which are directly influenced by cinema verité, direct cinema, and other spontaneous documentary styles. By contrast to either, New Chinese documentaries have developed a particular feel of their own, and the term that has been conjured to best describe their intrinsic style is "jishizhuyi" or "on-the-spot realism."

The use of hand-held cameras, testimonials through interviews, and the general invasiveness of the filmic device into everyday lives crafts an interesting relationship between documentaries and the state. New technologies allow documentarians agency in avoiding censorship or control over their filmed subject, and the spontaneity of the works circumvents the the director's need to submit scripts to official channels. The works, though, allow the public to speak, and they are representative of the views of everyday people—harking back to practices encouraged by the Maoist-era state apparatus such as speaking out against landlords and the rich. The extent of the relationships between independent works and the state is not yet fully comprehended, and the notion of an "independent" work is problematic at best.

To clarify: the term "postsocialist" as used in this post refers to Chinese postsocialism which is at once a move away from the aesthetics of revolutionary realism (based on the Soviet model) and an attempt to represent postsocialist conditions—that is, conditions inherent in the era following China’s Open Door Policy to today. Much narrative film from the 1990s to the present by "6th Generation Directors" carry the term "postsocialist realist" to indicate an attempt at stripping away ideological representations of truth to capture the raw reality of everyday life on the ground. The on-the-spot realism of contemporary Chinese documentary, attempts, in my opinion, the very same program. Only the age-old cinematic conundrum remains—that is, to what extent can one strip away the old paradigms of ideological representation without replacing them with others?

A project like Last Train Home would not have been possible without the availability of hand-held cameras. Several scenes depict the physical discomforts that Changhua and Suqin endure as they brave the over-packed Guangzhou train station in order to push their way to the train and squeeze their bags through narrow entryways. The family’s second homecoming in the film occurs in 2007 when a fierce winter storm knocked out power and paralyzed travel throughout the entire country—stranding scores of millions of passengers. During this trip, which the couple make with Qin, the Zhang family wait for five days in the overcrowded station to catch the next train. Anxious passengers jump barricades, and the security forces can do little to stop the massive flow of bodies which are pushing to the platforms in order to desperately make the next departure. The camera sways with the pushes and shoves of the crowd while capturing the people being trampled upon, fainting, or pulled by security away from stampedes. The project of the film is to capture the difficulties of travel during Chinese New Year, and the use of the camera to absorb the shock of the stampedes offers a ground-eye view of the frantic and claustrophobic atmosphere.

The film begins with a right to left tracking shot from an elevated position over the Guangzhou train station. A caption appears on the screen indicating there are 130 million migrant workers in Mainland China who will be going home for Chinese New Year, making this event the largest annual migration on earth. As the camera moves left over the plaza, it captures the image of thousands of people squeezed together. The tracking shot emphasizes the number of travelers, yet though the shot is impressive in its ability to represent the enormity of the traveling experience, it also promotes an aesthetic inherent to the mass ornament of anxious travelers.

It is clear that Fan Lixin enjoys the tableau painted by this particular shot, because he uses a similar tracking shot later in the film. Right from the beginning Fan is at times less interested in the spontaneity of the travel experience and more invested in establishing carefully constructed representations of migration. He does not hide his active representation of the emotion he wants to portray: for example, Fan uses non-diegetic music at very particular moments in the film to echo the sadness of Changhua and Sunqin. During each departure scene, a melancholic piece is played on a toy piano narrating the psychological state of the couple who leave their family again for another year.

The most dramatic moment in the film occurs at the exact instant in which the apparatus breaks down and the 'truth of the situation' is revealed in terms of the relationship between the daughter and her father. During a verbal exchange during New Year, Qin begins challenging her father and the stated intentions of her mother to stay this year with her family. Qin curses her father, and the confrontation becomes physical. As he strikes her, Qin turns to the camera and shouts, 'so you wanted to see the real me?' as if challenging the intentions of the filmmaker. At that precise moment, due to the tussling between father and daughter as they try and hit and kick each other, the camera stumbles backwards slightly, the boom microphone drops into view, and the light projection falters, revealing that in actuality, the room in which the family is staying is much darker than appears on camera. Visual revelation of life on the ground has been proven altered by the cinematic mechanism. In this sense, this particular moment is the most and the least successful shot of the film. It is successful in that it breaks psychological barriers of its subjects when the daughter curses and 'reveals her true self.' She explodes in a series of epithets intentionally designed to infuriate her father, who without hesitation beats her into submission. At the same time, the exposure of the apparatus reminds the viewer of the concerted effort of Fan to construct his narrative. This is the only time in the entire film in which a subject makes eye contact with the camera. This is also the only time that one of the subjects speaks directly to the camera, as if she is attempting to speak through the lens and to us the audience. All other spoken moments occur through conversations among the subjects or through monologues as they give offerings and pray out loud.

The complex relationship of contemporary documentaries to the state complicates the manner in which the reception of these works is mediated through their very appeal to truth. It is no secret that the term 'banned in China' has become a branding cliché for film and is intended to attract viewership among predominately European and American viewers. The availability of these very works in China, however, follows an alternate trajectory thanks to many disseminating circuits, including the pirating industry. The 'banned in China' branding assumes with it a titillating assumption that what is on the screen is thus accurate, factual, and dare I say 'authentic' because it flies in the face of an authoritarian system. To my knowledge, Last Train Home never carried the 'banned' label. However, the search for raw, down to ground, non-ideologically represented truth inherent to the on-the-spot realist documentary style beckons strong critique in relation to filmic technique. This is particularly important when considering that the funding for many documentaries comes from outside donors whose influence on these documentaries has never truly been elucidated. Funding aside, if we assume that raw representation is indeed to the goal of Last Train Home, we see that the project defeated its purpose.

But I propose an alternate understanding. By allowing the cinematic mechanism to slip into view alongside the confrontation between father and daughter, the project experienced an epiphany and invited it to enter the blueprint, after which the film switched focus. The hatred and animosity, which had been brewing early in the film, forces us to ask why Qin would oppose all efforts to advise her future and wellbeing. Perhaps then, in the end, this documentary does not chart and document the travails of New Year homecoming, but instead looks at a particular instance in which an individual enters a postsocialist economic system in the form of a migrant worker. This decision is made through her own volition and against the expectations of her parents and grandmother—and one would assume against the wishes of her deceased grandfather to whose authority she defers throughout the film. Qin then enters a sea of statistics, as represented by the tracking shot which provides the exposition of the work. What is not answered is why she is angry, though simplistic answers could be forwarded. The film does not pursue an answer but rests upon its footage of the long distance train trip back and forth. As such, I personally believe that the documentary could have gone further.

Most importantly, I want to call attention to the manner in which Chinese postsocialist documentary approaches its subject matter. These documentaries offer profound insight into a society in the midst of great change, and as such they contain wonderful educational merit. However, one must also be a vigilant critic of documentary, though in my opinion, many of the documentaries that are coming out of Mainland China right now are coalescing into a fascinating era of film history.


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Anonymous said...

Read this fantastic analysis from my apartment in Kuwait, was going to comment, then noticed it's from U of I, my alma mater!

Great analysis. I really want to know what happened to the family, and especially Qin, in the years following the documentary.