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Fan Lixin's Last Train Home: why film unhappy things?

Canada resident director Fan Lixin

Canadian citizen Fan Lixin (范立欣) has made a documentary that spans the years 2007 to 2009, focusing on an old couple's journey back to Guang'an city, Huilong village (回龙村) in Sichuan from the factories of Guangzhou. The documentary, made with over one million dollars in funding, will have wide release in foreign countries, but not in mainland China. In a Southern Weekly culture feature, Fan, the director, says: "There is a complex economic chain between the rich lifestyles of developed countries and the hard work of Chinese peasants who are trying to survive. At the two ends of the chain, neither party understands the other."

In 2007, on the CCTV documentary program Jishi (or 纪事 Chronicles), Fan contributed a section about the story of elder brother Zhang and elder sister Chen, which began the seed of the documentary Last Train Home (归途列车). The Southern Weekly culture feature goes on to say:

The plan [to then make the documentary] was favored and in the end was awarded funding from the Canadian government, funding from the cultural department of Quebec, funding from the Amsterdam International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival funding and the support of US independent TV ITVS. Together with the prior purchase of broadcasting rights by the UK's Channel 4, France's TV5 and a fee-charging HD TV station in Canada, Last Train Home filming budget reached one million dollars. For many Chinese filmmakers, this amount is quite extravagant.

Fan has been accused of taking foreign money, and even university professors have said (quote in the Southern Weekly piece) after watching his film that taking one million dollars means allowing foreigners to instill their economic and political viewpoints. But Fan's response is:

He gave an example: my mother is sick, and I give her a bowl of medicine, the medicine is really bitter. "She slaps me, this is so bitter, why are you making me drink it. As her son, do I continue advising her to drink it, or do I say that she's not really ill, and then pour the medicine away?"

Southern Weekly went on to interview Fan and his Chinese producer, Zhao Qi (赵齐). They talk about finding a route into other countries' TV programming with a film about the "real China."

Why film unhappy things?

by Li Hongyu (李宏宇) in Guangzhou / SW

What are they laughing at

Southern Weekly: As a Canadian Chinese, what is your experience like making films abroad?
Fan Lixin: One thing in particular made me think a lot. I live in Montreal, and I always go to China Town to eat. There is a television there, and because I've worked at CCTV9 before, each time I would ask the boss to switch to CCTV9. Next to me were a table with two foreigners, who are also watching CCTV9. At the time it was showing a documentary, the foreigners laughed as they watched. I felt really sad, we have worked so hard to make this, and it's also approved by the leaders, but here it is seen as a joke by other people.

Southern Weekly: What are they laughing at?
Fan: They can't understand it. For example China's "Three Represents," foreigners don't know what this is in the slightest, if you directly translate it into English for them, won't they laugh at you?

You need to establish a real image, you should use a form that can be accepted by the west to express your confidence and success. I think Last Train Home is a form that can directly enter into the theaters of the west as well as mainstream television, this will be watched by westerners who have been educated, the people who are the core force of society.

Southern Weekly: What do you hope to do with your film in China?
Fan: I have the China rights for this film. I will hope to show this in theaters in Taiwan and some regional TV stations may broadcast this in Hong Kong. I really want to see it in the theaters in the mainland, but this will be very difficult. But from the very beginning, this film was made to be seen by Chinese people.

Southern Weekly: But there are already Chinese viewers who think that you are showing "negative things" to foreigners. Using foreigners' money is also a problem.
Fan: Chinese people have a strong sense of justice, even if there is a lot of injustice with society, we are still not allowed to show it to the outside. This is a deep cultural and psychological problem, and isn't something that can be changed by one generation.

As for foreigners' money, I have already concluded an answer myself. Because we have grown up in this kind of environment, it's easy to apply the experience here [in China] to other people, thinking that whoever is the boss we have to listen to them. But it isn't like this is other countries.

Southern Weekly: With the support of the funds, do you really think your work is more free?
Fan: During the production process, the producer will not disturb you. At the same time the funds can seriously demand that the final rights are with the director. The only form of "censorship" is that the producer will give you some suggestions from the angle of the market.

Zhao Qi (赵齐, the producer on the Chinese front): Actually, from a deeper level it's not really so: they are not specifically editing or controlling it, but they are choosing the subject matter, and choosing what conforms to their fundamental ideas and value systems.

This is a format that China should learn from. There are historical reasons in China, most documentary resources are monopolized by the people in the system, and they will be more inclined to have a propaganda task, their tone is one of recounting, and their editing method is, comparatively speaking, more rigid. Because the documentaries outside of the system don't have any freedom, sometimes they will feel anger, and at the same time, in order to survive, they often go down a biased path. In actual fact, for China, normal and real recounting is very important.

Saying the truth is a big payoff for a small effort

Southern Weekly: What do you mean by a normal and real recounting?
Zhao: In all fairness, even though families like Old Zhang's are facing many problems, but society has offered up some opportunities, and these are the positive effects.

Any hostility or friction comes from distrust of the two sides - there will definitely be distrust, even if it is between Britain and America. Our work is how to get the two sides to understand each other, and create more trust, asking them to recognize that the people of this country are different to them.

Fan: I have been in contact with the editors of different TV stations. They always say we want to see how real Chinese people see China.

In order to survive, commercial TV stations will have some bias, public TV stations in actual fact acts like "society's conscience," they are comparatively speaking less affected by the political environment and the social environment, this is the best point to break into for China if it wants to change its own image. The public TV stations of the west want to find people who talk the truth in China. If China also has a mechanism that can connect with them, and can get talented Chinese directors or valuable mediums to enter into other countries' public media, then it would be a big payoff using a small effort.

Southern Weekly: Can Last Train Home have a big payoff?
Fan: When it was broadcast in Montreal an economist came to speak with me. He said that he often thinks about how to explain to his students what the root of the problem is - why these people have it so hard, and why industrial workers in Montreal are all unemployed.

The most important thing is to see who earned all the money. The Chinese government has become a scapegoat and the western government is also a scapegoat, only the people on Wall Street are very rich.

Westerners complain that developing countries have cheap workers that have stolen their jobs and lowered their quality of living. In actual fact the change in their lives have changed in the sense that they are driving a Toyota instead of a Mercedes-Benz. But for lots of cheap workers it's the difference between going hungry and not going hungry.

Zhao: If the people are more understanding of you, it means less pressure from the people for the government. If there are 10 films like this showing on mainstream American TV, it might get 10 million mainstream audience members with views on the global economic situation; these views might be changed a little, and might in 5 years time affect trade between China and America. This is an extremely significant event for the country.

Hasn't the Ministry of Commerce already advertised on CNN? The Ministry of Commerce might have done this in order to solve the trade dispute. But what about the Ministry of Culture, the External Publicity Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can they spend money on something of a deeper culture?

Southern Weekly: How do you think this should be done?
Zhao: We need to transform a cultural product into a commercial product. Last Train Home is a commercial product. Traditional publicity never has as good as an effect as a commercial product. If our government has a film and wants to broadcast it on the BBC, even giving them one million pounds doesn't mean that it will get it broadcast. But if we collaborate to make a film, I contribute 100,000 pounds and you contribute 100,000 pounds, as long as on top of it registers in passing some cultural content, then it will definitely passed around when the program is broadcast.

Fan: Getting money from abroad is equal to you having one foot in half of its mainstream media, not only can you make films, they will actively broadcast it for you.

Southern Weekly: The problem is if they want to spend 100,000 pounds. It's also possible that they want to do something that we don't want them to.
Zhao: We can have 100 different topics, 90 they don't want to do, but 10 they do, which we can also accept. The problem is right now we don't have a mechanism that is able to do this.

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There are currently 5 Comments for Fan Lixin's Last Train Home: why film unhappy things?.

Comments on Fan Lixin's Last Train Home: why film unhappy things?

归途列车 (Last Train Home) isn't bad, but it lacks emotional impact of such as 龙脊 (dragon's back) in the Jishi series.

Wow, my commend actually went up. Just to clear up, I was wrong last time, 龙脊 (dragon's back, a documentary about rural schools) is actually part of Jianzhen (见证 Witness) series rather than Jishi 纪事 Chronicles series in CCTV. It is customary for Jianzhen series to do a follow up about ten years later, so I hope to see how things fare these workers.

The last train home actually reminds of a another documentary in Jianzhen called "my home in far away Beijing" (远在北京的家). Which follow 5 Anhui women as they go to Beijing for the first time working as maids, babysitter etc. It a bit saddening to see many of the problems states in the film now more than 18 years ago still persists. If you're interested here is original documentary filmed in 1992 (All in Mandarin) link And the follow up 12 years later in 2004. (All in Mandarin) link link

Please tell me there was some translation error and he didn't actually refer to Montreal locals eating in the Chinese restaurant as "foreigners".

In reality most migrant workers come home to see their children only every 6 years. Their children often live completely on their own in the forgotten mountain villages (if not living with relatives). If you want to see a film about their life, watch the film "with the left behind children" at the following link
This film (54 minutes) was shown on the Yunnan documentary filmfestival (Yunfest) in 2009, and was causing there major discussions (link)

I watched this film last night and it was a great disappointment. It looked corporate, you could see the Western gaze on China. The portrayed people in the film seem to be there just to drive the narrative. This leads to a poor, one sided, 'emotional' film made to satisfy North American and European audiences' thirst for the exotic China. European film festivals and North American audiences would love it though.
When we walked back home we thought that the film had the same problems as 'Up the Yangtze' another documentary that deals with similar issues and characters. Reading about 'Last Train Home' online I discovered that was made by the same producers, all based in Montréal. Very suspicious problematic films.

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