Sunday, March 20, 2016

QWFF ’16: Coming and Going

If it is any consolation, life would probably be even harder for these two sets of brothers if they were sisters instead, because that is how things are in China. Life is a hardscrabble business in their rural village, but the promise of the big city often gives way to bitter disappointment for migrant workers who try their luck there. The young protagonists constantly grapple with their dashed “grass is greener” hopes in Tianlin Xu’s Coming and Going (trailer here), which screened at the 2016 Queens World Film Festival.

After their father’s death left them orphans, teenagers Hai-cheng and Hai-long essentially gave up on rural life. One now spends more time working short-term jobs in the nearest city than he does in their home town. His brother will probably follow his lead, once the harvest is finished.

Qiang and Jun should be care-free pre-teens, but they are understandably concerned by the long period without contact from their father, a migrant worker in the city. For now, they board at the regional school and help their exhausted grandparents in the fields. Even though they are still cared for, their father’s absence weighs heavily on them.

There have been many documentaries that have chronicled the plight of Communist China’s swelling underclass, but Xu (pictured below) manages to make it fresh (and even more tragic), through her cross-cutting of the four brothers’ stories. It becomes achingly clear we are watching history repeat itself, not necessarily beat for beat, but definitely in terms of the broad strokes.

Indeed, we come to suspect the younger set of brothers will inevitably follow in the older duo’s footsteps, eventually seeking employment in an urban industrial center. However, from what we see in C&G, they are most likely better off staying home. Migrant workers are typically exploited by employers and targeted by criminals. In many cases, they are worse off than when they left. As various extended family members argue, nobody starves in the village.

Of course, the easier subsistence living in the countryside is not a future. It is a static life. So even knowing the possible hardships facing them, it is difficult to blame the younger brothers for their eagerness to seek work in the big city.

C&G earns surprise style points for Timon Wareczko’s evocative score and a rather poignant original song. Xu’s approach is sensitive and disciplined, yet also strictly observational, so she never has an opportunity to explain how China’s stringent Hukou residency regulations exacerbate migrant workers’ perilous status, making them “undocumented workers” in their own country.

Still, she captures the nature of their lives quite powerfully and directly. She leads us to sympathize with the older pair and makes us ache for scrappy young Qiang and Jun. They deserve a real future. Highly recommended for China watchers, Coming and Going should have plenty more festival screenings to come, following its New York premiere at this year’s Queens World Film Festival.