Who Speaks for China?

by |
09/01/2010 4:30 AM |

Last Train Home and A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Directed by Lixin Fan and Zhang Yimou

The financial and emotional pressure of a family’s aspirations is literal, and visceral, in Last Train Home, the China-born, Canada-based Lixin Fan’s documentary debut. The title refers to the 130 million or so Chinese workers who leave their mostly menial jobs and subdivided dormitory lodgings for their provincial hometowns every New Year, and Fan, who also shot and edited, gets right into the railway station crowd, seemingly standing overnight for trains that never arrive except as distorted rumors, and sometimes losing sight of his subjects, just as families are separated from one another. We see passengers collapsing, or scaling barriers guarded by cops and soldiers, who’re sometimes indifferent and sometimes linking arms, riot-control style.

Fan spends the rest of the year with a single family: Middle-aged Zhang Changhua and Cheng Suqin, who sew clothes in cramped factories, sending their salary back to the farm where grandma raises their children. After accompanying them on their yearly homecoming, via shoulder-to-shoulder traincars crossing cruelly scenic valleys, Fan watches Zhang and Cheng compress a lifetime of parental love, hope and wisdom into bitter harangues directed at their academically indifferent teenage daughter, Qin. When Qin begins to squirm under such desperate expectation, the scenes pack a claustrophobic charge to match the diamond-mine crush of Mom and Dad’s existence.

Last Train Home opens in 2006’s boomtimes and repeats its travelogue annually, up to the cusp of our current crisis. It offers a coherent portrayal of private ritual inflected by recent history: late in the film, Qin watches the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, previously anticipated a couple years and reels ago.

That ceremony was choreographed by Zhang Yimou, still very much a voice of his nation, even as the Western eyes that once saw China’s artistic vanguard in Zhang’s historical pageants now prefer Last Train Home‘s unadorned social realism to his increasingly embalmed spectacle. The latest specimen of which, it happens, opens here on the same day.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is a cover version of Blood Simple, filtering the Coen brothers’ debut through Zhang’s rococo aesthetic. Easily adaptable, the Coens’ beat-sheet is also fatally logical: Singleminded characters pursue their objectives at cross purposes, and chaos results. Restaged on a single desert-compound set, though, the bad chess moves of a growly roadhouse owner, his cuckolding wife and employee, and a no-fuss hitman feel like a stage farce’s cuckoo-clock entrances and exits (to restore a cosmic dimension to the coincidences, Zhang inserts time-lapse shots of the sun rising and setting against desert hills streaked like sand-art jars). Zhang, who color-coded so ravishingly in Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, dresses Xiao Shenyang, as the young lover, in a bedspread-pink silk genie outfit; Xiao, one of a couple TV comics pulling faces here, conveys anxiety via exaggerated wheezing, which Zhang amps up in the sound mix. Sun Hunglei underplays amusingly in the M. Emmett Walsh role, but it’s mostly impossible to imagine Zhang’s garish sensibility conceiving of the brutally simple plot; watching A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is like watching a body reject an organ transplant.

Both opening September 3