On May 12, 2008, at 14:28, the Great Sichuan Earthquake shook southwestern China leaving 68,000 people dead. Ten days later, as dreary dust settled everywhere, Du Haibin aimed his camera at some villagers. He did it again 210 days later, and the result is a stunning visual journey through the aftermath of tragedy.
Trailing locals, the filmmaker perfectly captures their emotional relief at having survived as well as their vulnerability when they begin to rebuild. The magnitude of the disaster is revealed in his many shots of dilapidated buildings and grieving family members.
While dazed villagers clear debris, one disheveled man wearing an overcoat without pants or shoes walks past the camera staring vacantly. He returns to haunt us repeatedly until somewhere in the middle of the documentary, we meet his father and finally understand his condition.
Other families are less fortunate. The parents of a missing student and their young son weep uncontrollably as they sift through the dorm room where he lived. The missing boy’s belongings appear eerily intact, even as every child in the school has been declared dead. Another parent chatters with a friend as they launder clothes on the pavement until, describing the deaths of her son, his wife and their child, she breaks down.
At first, villagers are quick to praise communist party leaders for distributing food and setting up temporary shelters. And, they happily engage in pep talks about their good fortune at living in such a responsive country. But the reality of having to fix what has been broken overcomes those who must resort to selling scrap metal and slaughtering pigs for money.
When Haibin returns 210 days later, the strain is visible. Patience is as thin as the winter wind is thick, descending on the villagers, while a lone woman complains about the lack of electric blankets. Yet when a prominent communist party leader speeds by in a sleek black car, the crowd breaks out into cheers — touched by an important official’s apparent concern over their unpleasant peasants’ lives.
“1428” has no opening date yet for Seattle.
“Last Train Home”
The real shocker in Lixin Fan’s documentary (“Last Train Home”) is not his depiction of China’s sudden economic expansion stretching its average citizenry beyond endurance. Rather, it’s a smaller moment that occurs as he follows a typical rural-turned-urban family.
In a pivotal scene, two factory worker parents return to their village to visit their children on their yearly sojourn. When the teenage daughter dares to swear at her father, he knocks her to the ground. Ferociously fighting back, the girl suddenly turns towards the camera.
“You want to film me?” she screams. “This is the real me!”
Besides demonstrating that hating one’s parents may be universal among teenagers, the rebellious adolescent also displays strong Western influences as witnessed by her new lifestyle. Her mutiny is especially distressing because her parents left for the city specifically to provide a better life for her and her brother.
As China’s farmers migrate to congested metropolises to work, they make painful sacrifices. For the Zhangs, the family that Fan follows, it’s the only affordable means to send the children to school so they don’t end up working in factories like their parents. For 16 years, joined by 130 million fellow laborers, the Zhangs have journeyed across the country annually to celebrate Lunar New Year with their children. The distance, both emotionally and physically, leaves all parties ill prepared for reconnection.
“When we are home, we don’t know what to say to the kids,” Mrs. Zhang confesses.
Alas, the feeling is mutual for their estranged children.
A congregation of colorful umbrellas held by thousands patiently waiting in the rain to board a train home is a lasting image. And, the breathtaking trek through misty mountains contrasts with dirty factories where babies nap atop piles of fabric.
But the irony is that while the Zhangs suffer in their cramped dorm by night and ceaselessly sew blue jeans by day, their children pick crops with their grandmother in the beautiful countryside—the idyllic landscape the Zhangs left to make a better life.
“Last Train Home” opens Oct. 22 at The Egyptian.