Thursday, February 23, 2023

Doc Fortnight ’23: A Long Journey Home

They were never really given a choice in the deal, but the Chinese people were promised prosperity, stability, and happiness, if they gave up a little freedom. That is the “Chinese Dream,” but it isn’t working, at least not for Wenqian Zhang’s family. They are all totally miserable and she has the video that proves it in A Long Journey Home, which screens during MoMA’s 2023 Documentary Fortnight.

Zhang has just moved back home after studying abroad and it is super-awkward. Her mother constantly reminds her filmmaker daughter how much the family spent on her education, when she is not belittling her father. As we glean from Zhang’s conversations with him, he made a play to become a tycoon in the mid-1990s, but failed due to a combination of bad luck, corruption, and/or insufficient insider contacts. Nevertheless, she seems to have the greatest rapport with him out of all her immediate family.

Long Journey Home
is just over two hours, but not a lot of earth-shattering events happens, except an awful lot of arguing about money. Technically, it does not address the annual mass-migration of migrant Chinese workers to their countryside homes for Chinese New Year documented in Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, but the echoes are likely intentional. We definitely get the sense Zhang has traveled from an even greater distance mentally for her somewhat strained homecoming.

Of course, every country and culture can identify with family dysfunction. In the case of Zhang’s family, much of it appears bound up in concerns regarding status and property ownership, which is not surprising given PRC’s predatory economic policies, but still somewhat ironic, considering their ostensive socialism.

Stylistically, Zhang’s long-held, static digital video takes definitely share a kinship with independent Chinese documentarians like Wang Bing and Du Haibin, as does the uncomfortable intimacy of her focus. Viewers will often feel like they are confined to Zhang’s home as well. It is a brutally honest look at their micro state of affairs, which can potentially be interpreted as a microcosm of the national macrocosm. Recommended for those interested in independent Chinese filmmaking and intensely personal documentaries,
A Long Journey Home screens tonight (2/23) and Saturday (3/4) at MoMA, as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight.