Last week I reviewed the wonderfully made documentary Last Train Home 《歸途列車》 and highly recommended it. To celebrate the film’s screening at the prestigious Hong Kong International Film Festival on March 26th & 29th, the following is my email interview with the film director Lixin Fan. My questions are in bold, follow by his answers.
1) From what I could tell, the film was filmed, at least, in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Was I right? How many trips did you make to China and how many hours of raw footage did you end up shooting? What equipment did you use to shoot the film?
We’ve done seven filming in China ranging from a few months to a few weeks in the course of three years. We have roughly 300 hr of raw footage shot over three different cameras – DVCPRO 50, and then small handheld HD cameras Panasonic HVX-200 and Sony EX-1
2) How did you come to select the Zhang family to feature? Did you know them before? Were you worry, at any point, that they might pull out from the documentary project? Tell me more please.
I traveled to city of Guangzhou for my research where I visited many factories. I strolled around these factory neighborhoods and talked to the workers I met. I didn’t know the Zhangs before. When I first met the them, they were cautious about discussing their family lives, but I revisited them many times in the following weeks and we became friends. I wanted to film with them because I think their story of migrating for nearly two decades. Their story represents the lives of millions and also touches upon many complicated social issues that China is experiencing.
3) The scene where the parents fought with Qin was very hard to watch but ultimately very important to tell the story. Can you tell me what you were thinking at the time? Was it tough for you and the sound person to keep shooting?
The moment the father hit the daughter, I as in another room, my cameraman was shooting. I heard the shouting and came to the scene, and went into the frame to calm everyone down. A that point, I asked myself, shall I put down the camera or shall I capture this emotional moment to give the film a stronger narrative to reach a larger audience and eventually create changes? In such a conflict of ethics versus professionalism, everyone is challenged to make a sensible decision. I chose the greater good, but very importantly, not at the cost of creating harms. The Chinese believe that the world in which we live is not a world of black and white. As the Taoism’s yin and yang philosophy explains: every action creates a counteraction as a natural and unavoidable movement. Also, as the Taoijitu diagram shows, there is black in white, and also white in black.
4) Have all the family members in the film seen the film yet? If you have, what were their reactions? In particular, what was Qin’s reaction? If not, do you plan to show it to them?
I went back to Guangzhong at end of last year to show the film in Guangzhong Documentary Film Festival. The couple still works in that city. My crew member and I visited the Zhang couple again and wanted to show them the film (Qin is working in another province and I didn’t meet her.) The Zhangs couple is quite happy to see us coming back to visit, but they preferred to watch the film by themselves. I respected their choice and gave them a DVD of the film. After watching the film, the father told me it made him sad to watch three years of their life on the screen; and the mother told me till this day she still couldn’t understand why Qin hates them so much.
5) I understand your film will be premiering in Hong Kong International Film Festival and you will be attending the March 29th screening (which is sold out).
If my memory serves me, HKIFF will be your film’s Asia premiere, how do you feel about your film screening in Hong Kong,China?
I think it is a great honor to have Last Train Home to be premiered in the prestigious HKIFF. As a special part of China, freedom and democracy are more generously allowed than in mainland. HK is a city known as the financial power house for Asia therefor. It’s an important link in the global trade chain. I’m curious to see how would the HK audience find the film in their own context.
6) Do you keep in touch with the Zhang family? In particular, Qin? The film certainly ended on a note that the audiences are worried about Qin. And knowing how slippery that the slope she was standing, I am worried about her. Do you have an update on Qin?
Yes, I still keep a close relationship with the Zhang family. I often call the couple to ask about the updates in life and at work. The couple went back to the New Year this time. The mother told me that Yang (the boy) got a number one in his class this year. Monther spent eight month at home caring the boy and fields. The father told me business in their factory is picking up since the economic is bettered from last year. So, once again, both the mother and father are about to leave home for work after the New Year.
The mother also told me Qin called to say happy new year but she didn’t came back home. Apparently she found work in a hotel at a small city in Hubei province. She’s 20 years of age this year, and I think she is definitely claiming her independence from her parents now.
7) I may have other followup questions, but I will start with the above questions for now. Thanks a lot for answering my questions.
If I may add one small thing in the end, I’m working on my next film which is on environmental issues in China. China is currently building a Wind Farm on Gobi desert and aim to complete the project in the next 10 years. The wind energy produced by the Wind Farm is going to be exceed that of Three Gorges Dam, and therefore, named “Three Gorges on Land.” Besides documenting China’s effort to focus on and implement green energies, I want to explore the balance between industrial development and nature sustainability through the philosophy of Taoism; for example, how much control human should place on nature; how far we can go in developing our society as the expense of exploiting the environment, etc
2019 Nov 30 Update: 香港紀錄片拓展計劃Hong Kong Documentary Initiative was so kind in sharing Mary Stephen‘s, editor of Last Train Home 《歸途列車》, masterclass in editing. Here I link to timecode 57:32 when Mary showed a clip after discussing some ideas used.