Lixin Fan participated in Film Forward China with his film Last Train Home and as an Advisor for the Documentary Workshops with CNEX in Beijing. His experience was unique, as he is a Chinese filmmaker and knows firsthand the challenges of making and exhibiting a film in China as well as the nuances of a Chinese audience.
We had the great privilege of screening Lixin’s film to a Chinese student audience for the first time in Beijing and then on two more occasions in Wuhan and Xi’an. Wuhan was particularly special because it was Lixin's hometown screening and his mother and extended family sat in the second row, watching his film on a big screen with an audience for the first time. As he remarks below, it was a proud moment for Lixin and his family as it allowed his mom to understand the reasons behind the risks he took to make this film and speak out on behalf of the migrant community.
Advisors Cara Mertes and Lixin Fan listen to a filmmaker in a small group at CNEX/DFP workshops. Photo by Meredith Lavitt.
Each time we screened the film the reaction and debate were similar. Young students questioned Lixin on whether his film was made for a Western or Eastern audience. Many challenged him that he was no longer Chinese and the film was made for a Western audience to expose China in an unfavorable way. At times the discussions became heated and the translation from Chinese to English diminished as the conversation moved quickly back and forth.
I spoke to Lixin at length post-screening to discern what the real debate was, his thoughts on this young patriotism, and the Chinese government’s influence. He felt very strongly that many of these students were confused and that he understood where their responses originated from. For one, Lixin had briefly left the country and became a dual resident in Canada and China, and is also receiving Canadian funding for his film - to many in China he has thus become a Westerner. There is also a surge of “new patriotism” that many students have embraced and it goes against their core beliefs to present a view of China that shows any sort of disgrace.
On the flip side, in one of his last screenings he asked the audience to raise their hands if they themselves had experienced a migration – the response was electric, almost half the room immediately raised their hands. In that moment, a truly human connection was made between Lixin, the students, and a very common plight illuminated with great care in Last Train Home.
Still from Last Train Home.
The screenings were incredibly provocative and social media in China was buzzing as people tweeted about their thoughts on the film. Some of the unfavorable tweets, Lixin speculated, came from the “Chinese 50 cents.” The Chinese 50 cents are a group of bloggers hired by the government to maintain their voice anonymously in China and are paid 50 cents per blog!
Below is Lixin’s experience in his own words…
On our way from the airport to hotel, I saw a long line of bare concrete suspension highway foundations unevenly sprout up from the green farm fields. I always liked these fields on the outskirts of my hometown as they surprise me with their creative colors in different seasons each time I come back. For someone like me who only goes home once in a long while, it heals my homesickness almost instantly. From our car, I could see people busy working up and down the foundations, and those concrete giants pointed us right into the city, which is now literallly a huge construction maze. I was told there were 6,000 ongoing constructions at the same time in Wuhan.
Traveling with Film Forward is a fun and rewarding journey. In Beijing, we had three intensive but fruitful days on the Sundance/CNEX workshop with 11 Chinese filmmakers working to strengthen their inspiring projects. Last Train Home was also privileged to conclude our Beijing events at China’s most prestigious film school, the Beijing Film Academy, full of eager young students with intriguing questions and perspectives.
Onward to Wuhan, my mom rang while we were on our way to Wuhan University to open the first screening in town. Mom told me her “cheer team” is already in position. Thanks to Film Forward, this will be the first time I show Last Train Home publicly in my hometown.
In fact, I’m a bit nervous about the Q&A session this time as my mom is in the audience. She's always worried about me being “too out spoken” or “too radical” when making a social film in China. I can understand her worries, but I always tell her that someone has to do this kind of thing to push for changes. The Q&A went well. The audience cared a lot about the family in the film, they wanted to know how we shot the railway station scenes, etc.
Among all the questions, this is one that interested me the most - is this a film made for a western audience to expose the problems in China? Maybe I’m being speculative, but I couldn’t help to wonder if this was more of a political question than an aesthetic one. I always see my film as an effort to give a voice to the migrant workers in China. For some reason I sensed a kind of confused patriotism in this question. I can see why an older generation would ask me that question, since to a traditional Chinese mind, one is not supposed to make one’s family or country “lose face” by exposing its wrongdoings. But the young student surprised me when he hinted Last Train Home was disgracing China in front of the world.
In fact, I very much agree with what Mr. Cooper, the director of the Sundance Film Festival who is also traveling with Film Forward, said one day: to use film as a medium to start cultural dialogues. To me, I just wanted to tell a human story with the truth which I believed in, and to tell it in a convincing and interesting way so more people would want to see it. I was not sure why a patriotic young man would question the sincerity of a film that advocates for livelihoods of his own fellow citizens. It’s a mystery why he thinks this way, and I think there must be some kind of confusion there. I thought afterwards, had the young man been given some different perspectives on how to love one’s country, its people, and possibly the government, he might have a different critique of the film. And that really hit home for me why we are all here today: to exchange and connect through our films.