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[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: Last Train Home

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 9, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Last Train Home (CANADA-CHINA)

Next screening: Thursday June 10 / 2.30pm / Dendy Opera Quays

Qin is faced with a dilemma. Raised by her grandmother in rural China’s Sichuan province, she only sees her parents when they travel back from their monotonous Guangzhou factory work for Chinese New Year. They encourage her to study hard so she can find a well-paid job to support herself and her family. But Qin feels closer to her grandmother than her parents, and she resents the burden of responsibility – shouldn’t a teenager be allowed to have fun, not work, and shop for fur coats?

As the harsh reality of life for these struggling Chinese migrant workers dawns on Qin, it dawns on us, too. A multiple award-winner, Last Train Home is a powerful documentary. It excels in largely wordless montages of the workers, who send over 90% of their earnings back home to support the families, with the meagre remainder providing necessities such as food and clothing.

Each year, the pilgrimage the family makes back to rural Sichuan is a journey made by millions of others in this Chunyun period. In 2008, the number of rail passenger journeys during these holidays hit 2.26 billion, greater than the country’s population. The first year we see the Zhang parents travel back, it’s with relative ease. But the following – once Qin has abandoned her schooling to join them in the factories – they’re swamped in a flood of people clambering desperately to board the scarce trains.

The desperation on people’s faces is dreadfully moving, as is the tension in the fractured family unit – especially in an horrific scene between Qin and her otherwise subdued father – an explosive moment captured extraordinarily by director Lixin Fan. “You want to film the real me?” a furious Qin cries to the camera, “This is the real me!” It’s not every day you see such raw, authentic emotion captured on screen. [JB]

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[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: City of Life and Death

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 9, 2010 at 5:50 pm

City of Life and Death (CHINA/HONG KONG)

This harrowing film is to the war in the East as Schindler’s List was to the Holocaust. Like Spielberg’s opus, City of Life and Death is shot in magnificent black and white, which gives it a surreal dreamlike quality. It’s more than just an aesthetic choice too: the images and acts on screen are so brutal – women raped, men mowed down by machine guns and unarmed Chinese POWs coldly executed – that if it were in colour it would be intolerable.

Director/writer/producer Lu Chaan struggled for five years to get his retelling of the 1937-38 Nanjing massacre to the screen, and the result is relentless. The opening sequences depict the Japanese invasion with a Saving Private Ryan shaky-cam realism that doesn’t sacrifice spatial coherence, and from then on the atrocities only escalate.

After the Japanese capture of the city and the defeat of the Chinese defenders, Japanese commander Ida (Ryu Kohata), a psychopath even more banal and unhinged than Amon Goeth, presides over the mopping up operation. During this ‘Rape of Nanjing’, hundreds of thousands of POWs and civilians were murdered and thousands of women were raped. The largely fictional characters caught up in this horror include Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), a cuddly man with kewpie-doll features who acts as the assistant to real-life Nazi, John Rabes’ (John Paisley), and a thoughtful Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is kind (at least, by comparison) to one of the hundreds of women selected to ‘comfort’ the Japanese victors.

The film has caused considerable controversy in China for the decision to forefront a Japanese soldier, and critics have debated whether it falls into the same ‘wish-fulfilment’ trap as Schindler’s List. Space prevents me from weighing in on that discussion – but suffice it to say, as a piece of cinema, City of Life and Death is an essential war film. Powerful, draining and provocative. [JB]