Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sydney Film Festival 2010: Last Train Home

"Taste the bitterness first and the sweetness will follow"

The Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world was built in the Yangtze to support China’s rapid and unstoppable growth. This development changed the countless lives of those living near the river. Some rejected its construction while others accepted the dam as an accepted part of China’s quest in becoming an industrial force. This was the main premise of Up The Yangtze a documentary I saw two or so years ago. Thankfully, instead of wasting running time on political mumbo jumbo which would have inevitably bore the life out of me, the film focused on the personal stories of the people directly affected by the dam. 

Last Train Home, another documentary exploring similar social issues and also made by the same creators, took a similar approach. While it could have easily taken the political shove-your-ideas-down-my-throat-instead-of-letting-me-think-for-myself route (Michael Moore, anyone?), the film instead took the well-chosen cinematic route. The film didn’t feel like a documentary, it felt like a story that was real. The way the film is structured infers a narrative, the way it is shot suggests a quiet grandeur of cinematic proportions. The difference between the two films is the way they captured the interactions between the subject and the camera. In Up The Yangtze the camera is seamlessly invisible, save for face-to-face interviews. It achieves a state where the camera is able to capture the rawest form of emotion. There was a consistent sense of honesty and integrity throughout the entire film.

 In Last Train Home the initial interviews and the interactions between people felt a bit scripted and more aware of the camera. This is by no means a flaw. As we see later on, in a pivotal scene when a father hits his daughter for saying ‘fuck’ in his house, the daughter turns to the camera, and yells: “You want to film the real me? This is the real me!” All those bottled emotions finally get to bubble to the surface. The daughter holds a grudge against her parents for leaving her and her brother to be looked after by her grandmother while they travel to the city for work in order to give their children an education. While she tells us this, it felt scripted and I get the feeling she’s not telling me the truth. She is essentially a gathering storm, suppressed and unaffected at first but we feel something brewing, and unleashed (to borrow the Syd film fest’s tagline) later on.

 I felt angry towards the girl but at the same time I completely understand where she’s coming from. She is living in a country undergoing industrial change, indirectly impacting on the change in values. I see a girl losing the traditional values of Asian family life and is being forced to embrace the values of “new” China. She may appear completely selfish but I can only see her as a victim of a massive cultural shift happening in her country – a change both Up The Yangtze and Last Train Home capture so well.

Directed by Lixin Fan

Screenshots from trailer.

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