Gui tu lie che (Lixin Fan, 2009)
China, home to over 1.3 billion people, is the world’s most populous country, over four times the size of the United States (which ranks third on the list of countries by population as of December 2012; the country between the two, not surprisingly, is India). Ten percent of its population—one hundred thirty million people—are migrant workers, folks who live in small, rural villages but work in the big cities, travelling home to visit their families—when it’s possible—for holidays and vacations.
The central story of the documentary revolves around a handful of workers in Guangzhou who are preparing to go home for Chinese new year. Among them is a middle-aged couple, Changhua Zhang and Suqin Chen, who have been commuting to Guangzhou from Huilong, 1500 miles away, for sixteen years. The first time, they were leaving a newborn daughter with her grandparents. At the time the film was completed, that newborn daughter had become Qin Zhang, restive and rebellious teenager who, against the wishes of her parents, also begins the long-commute process; instead of following her paretns to Guangzhou, she goes to work in a garment factory in Beijing. This leads to some tension during the yearly trip home…
I liked this film, but not nearly as much as many other folks who have viewed it and commented. Much of my problem with it, irrationally, has to do with the limitations of documentary filmmaking. Real life does not answer questions as handily as do filmed fictions. And yet I found myself thinking over and over again, when mulling this movie and the resultant review, about the Korean film Treeless Mountain, made the year before, which touched (albeit tangentially) on the same subject in a much different way and seemed more satisfying while still leaving the same basic questions unanswered. It’s not an exact parallel, of course; much of the reason for the migrancy in China has to do with a country of 1.3 billion people and a finite amount of arable land, which leads to the ultimate fate (we assume) of Jin and Bin not really being a valid option for Qin and her younger brother (just stay in the village and become a farmer, wot?). But the parallel stuck there in my head, impossible to ignore, and the more I thought about the movie the more it loomed.
This could be entirely intentional on Fan’s part, of course. Not that specific comparison but the ambiguity with which we’re left at the end of the film. The complete lack of narration (one of the movie’s strongest points) leads to the film not choosing “sides” in this conflict: were the parents right to leave their family for eleven months out of the year in order to provide them with a life relatively free of poverty? Was Qin right to quit school and go to work in a factory herself in order to try and sustain that lifestyle? And that’s not an either/or question, it’s possible both were right. Or neither. These things are all open to interpretation. That takes some guts.
Fan, in an interview with PBS in 2011, said that both Qin (now back in school, though still in Beijing) and Suqin (who has retired and now stays in Huilong full time) are no longer part of the migrant grind, though the family’s rifts may still be too vast to heal. Yang, Qin’s younger brother, is still in school as well. Perhaps this is not a typical Chinese migrant family? We’re stuck with Heisenberg—it’s entirely possible that, through the simple act of observation, Lixin Fan changed this family’s destiny.
Worth a look, but not necessarily worth all the hype it’s gotten. ** ½
[note: this is not a trailer. This is the full film.]