Monday, January 23, 2012

Last Train Home

A scene from Lixin Fan's Last Train Home.

Happy Chinese New Year, readers!

Every year, when Chinese New Year comes around, my family and I gather around a big celebratory meal together, replete with all the delicious foods that symbolize prosperity, longevity, and success within the Chinese culture.

Like us, millions of families of Asian descent around the globe also gather to celebrate the beginning of the new Lunar calendar year. For many people in China, however, Chinese New Year in fact marks the only time millions of migrant workers will have the opportunity to see their families at all in any given year. For most Western cultures, the geographic splintering of families as adult children leave the nest in order to forge their own paths is by now a phenomenon considered rote. However, by contrast, the extraordinarily rapid industrialization of China's economy has resulted in a particularly striking, sudden, and by some turns tragic iteration of this concept.

Within the last decade, as the Chinese government has allowed more privatized business models to take hold within the country, opportunities for the lower classes to earn more money have exploded. Most of these opportunities lie in factory work within the country's largest cities, while the majority of the country's most economically depressed citizens live in the nation's rural and outlying areas. Meanwhile, the Chinese ethos of placing emphasis upon a child's education as the primary means for a family's upward mobility still remains as strong as ever. Thus, a paradigm that is essentially the inverse to many Western cultures has manifested in which not only have grown children left their homes to seek their fortunes far away, but millions of parents from rural farming communities have also left young children behind in the care of elderly grandparents in order to seek employment, eking out livings in large urban centers so as not to interrupt their children's study. For a culture that has long prioritized filial piety above all else, this massive exodus of both parents and children from the home alike appears to be causing major ruptures in China's societal fabric, in effect rendering the family unit obsolete and many of its traditional values along with it.

Thus, the annual celebration of Chinese New Year has come to take on even more significance for these families who have become estranged-- parents who have not seen their children in years, brothers and sisters who can barely remember a time when they lived together. Few people outside of China can empathize or even really imagine just how highly emotional, hazardous, and sometimes impossible a feat it can be for these families to make the trip home for this sometimes jubilant, but often bittersweet reunion-- which is perhaps what makes Lixin Fan's 2009 documentary, Last Train Home, so extraordinary.

Produced by the same folks who made Up the Yangtze, Last Train Home chronicles the ups and downs and gradual disintegration of a family as it succumbs to the enormous pressures, expectations, and distances they are forced to endure within this quickly transforming society. Within its first few minutes, the film informs the viewers via subtitles that every Chinese New Year, 130 million workers go home, making it "the world's largest single migration." We then watch as the spectacle of these millions move together in one mass of humanity through the nation's overwhelmed and antiquated rail system. A sea of anxious faces. The pounding of millions of frantic footsteps, mixed with calls of distress, confusion, desperation, and in some cases complete emotional meltdowns. It is one of the most astonishing displays of the lengths to which humans will go in order to reconnect with what we abstractly term as our "roots." The real tragedy of the film, then, is perhaps the slow realization that begins to set in as we follow the journey of one family, The Zhangs, that this ideal of the family hearth to which millions of Chinese citizens cling and hearken back each year is gradually slipping away. Fan never drives this point home with heavy-handed voiceovers or leading editorializing; rather, his unobtrusive lens simply follows the Zhangs and watches-- sometimes with startling intimacy, but always at a respectful distance-- as they grow frustrated, grow tired, and eventually grow apart. At a time when so many families are celebrating the new year with food for feasting, Last Train Home provides much food for thought.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Top 10 Films of 2011

I love movies. So do a lot of my friends. Which is why many of us collectively agonize over deciding which ones rank among our favorites each year. But, after much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, one finally just has to pull the trigger and make a damned list. So here is my round-up of the Top 10 Films of 2011. And, because the field was so incredibly packed last year, I've also ranked an additional 15 films to round out my Top 25. 2011 was as densely rich a year for movie-going as any in recent memory. Therefore, please keep in mind that there isn't really a wide margin between any of these choices in my estimation. I truly either loved or really liked them all. So, please to enjoy! And if you haven't seen any of these movies, then I sincerely hope you get the chance to screen them soon. Many of them are now available either on DVD, via online streaming, or are still playing in theaters in most major cities.

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist.

  1. Hugo, dir. Martin Scorsese
  2. The Artist, dir. Michel Hazanavicius
  3. A Separation, dir. Asghar Farhadi
  4. The Descendants, dir. Alexander Payne
  5. Pina 3D, dir. Wim Wenders
  6. The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick
  7. House of Pleasures, dir. Bertrand Bonello
  8. Margin Call, dir. J.C. Chandor
  9. Martha Marcy May Marlene, dir. Sean Durkin
  10. Shame, dir. Steve McQueen
  11. Pariah, dir. Dee Rees
  12. Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols
  13. Drive, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
  14. Jane Eyre, dir. Cary Fukunaga
  15. The Skin I Live In, dir. Pedro Almodóvar
  16. Margaret, dir. Kenneth Lonergan
  17. Beginners, dir. Mike Mills
  18. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, dir. David Fincher
  19. Attack the Block, dir. Joe Cornish
  20. The Trip, dir. Michael Winterbottom
  21. The Loving Story, dir. Nancy Buirski
  22. Weekend, dir. Andrew Haigh
  23. For Lovers Only, dir. Michael Polish
  24. Midnight In Paris, dir. Woody Allen
  25. Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier
  26. The Swell Season, dirs. Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis

*Two updates: I am aghast at having realized after posting this list that I mistakenly omitted three very worthy titles: the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York (dir. Richard Press); the modern adaptation of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes); and the raunch comedy, Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig). Though none of these three would have made my Top 10, they all certainly merit inclusion in this list overall.

Secondly, you can see how my Top 10 have figured into the yearly Mini-Poll over at Ten Best Films, which represents the consensus of a small sample of current graduate students and alumni of New York University and Yale University.

*Another belated update (Feb. 9, 2012): I finally saw Martin Scorsese's absolutely beautiful and moving HUGO. Sorry, everyone. This one takes the top prize, knocking The Artist (which, for the record, I still adore) down to number 2. A new film has been crowned.

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in Hugo.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

J. Hoberman Laid Off From The Village Voice

Though I love to write about films, I don't pretend to be a "real" film critic. I leave the serious business to many of my peers, such as Matt Singer and R. Emmet Sweeney, both of whom have been adding their fine voices to the cinephilic dialogue in print and online for years. One of the most auspicious publications in which Mr. Singer and Mr. Sweeney's film reviews have often appeared is The Village Voice, which has also been the home of the rightfully revered film critic J. Hoberman for several decades.

Well, last night, the shocking news came out-- to the outrage of many-- that the Voice has lain Mr. Hoberman off. I won't go into all the details; you can read about it here. However, one thing is for sure: not only has the world of film criticism been rocked by the news, but the Voice has surely just made one of the biggest mistakes in its long, embattled history. As far as most of the weekly's readers are concerned, J. Hoberman was the voice of the Voice. A titan in the industry may have been temporarily displaced, but the Voice has just lost a significant portion of its readership for good. Guess it's all sex ads (no, literally-- it's all just sex ads) from here on out.

*Update: J. Hoberman's farewell message to the staff of The Village Voice appeared this morning on his blog.