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I can imagine that this documentary, shot if I got it right over several years between Guangdong and Chongqing, following the fate of a typical family of migrant workers – abandoning their family to work thousands of kilometres away in factories, with only the prospect of returning once a year. It is obvious what must happen: these families are functional relationships, where one generation finances the other as long as they can, after which the relationship reverses. There is no concept of family or partnership as something emotional – nobody has been taught how to use emotions, how to deal with them and how to develop them. The world we see is bleak, and at the end of the day it is based on empty phrases (“you have to taste the sour before you can taste the sweet”) and unreflected concepts. The importance of the Spring Festival commute is maybe the biggest of those misunderstandings: the overwhelming importance of gathering with what people call their family, to travel thousands of kilometers together with millions of other people, fighting for days for tickets, getting humiliated when waiting and being exposed to the weather and the sheer disgrace of herding like cattle … and all that only to find yourself around a table with people who you have nothing to say.

The father of the family, as inept as he is in dealing with the troubles at hand, at least understands the core problem. He tells his wife that when they get home once a year and meet their children, they don’t even know what to say to the kids, because they do not have a common life and common themes.

Chinese are often blamed for behaving as if everything they are using (transport is a good example) or eating could be the last one – and here you see why that is, because when resources are limited, such as transport during a catastrophic Spring Festival, it really feels like an existential threat. And only to come back into a broken family that cannot be repaired with the simplistic means they have been given.

 

I do not think this is a great documentary, even though it will probably be interesting for an audience that has not yet spent time in China. The film  team, however, was fortunate or unfortunate enough to film during a truly calamitous season, when transport broke down due to heavy snow in China’s South, and they were able to work they way deep enough into this family to be allowed to observe the meltdown of family bonds. The latter is unpleasant to watch, it has a certain voyeuristic nature to it, but it indicates that many of the traditions that China uses today to maintain a structure of regularity and harmony are about to fundamentally change with young people not understanding their purpose anymore and the older generation unable to convey it.

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