China documentaries (Pt.2): rivers, migrants & entrepreneurs

I’ve recently been on a China documentary kick, so here are some brief reviews of Young & Restless in China, Up the Yangtze, and Last Train Home. Part 1 covered China: A Century of Revolution, China Blue, and Declassified: Tiananmen. Which important documentaries are missing from this list? I’d love to hear your recommendations! We found all of these at our local (Canadian) public library.

Young & Restless in China

Young & Restless in China follows nine individuals over four years (2004-2008), from migrant workers to a super-successful internationalized businessman, though no factory owners or gov’t officials. It’s like viewing nine core samples of Chinese society. If focuses on how their personal lives intersect with their careers (or lack thereof) and the current economic and spiritual state of Chinese society. In the people, their circumstances, and the places, we see a lot that we recognize from among our Chinese friends and experiences in China. For me personally, seeing how overseas-educated-and-experienced businessmen each find their own compromises with the deeply corrupt business and bureaucratic cultures of China, how aspiring female professionals and factory workers try (and sometimes fail) to balance career, freedom, marriage and motherhood, and the juxtaposition of countryside and urban realities all make this fascinating film.

Young & Restless in China was created by the same people who did China: A Century of Revolution.

Up the Yangtze

Up the Yangtze is as much art film as it is documentary, and it doesn’t seem to attempt to provide any kind of representational anecdote for what’s happening in any given sphere of Chinese society. The sparse narration provides only the bare minimum information and context, and watching it feels a lot like showing up in China for the first time, seeing a lot but not being able to really understand what you’re seeing. It’s beautifully shot, but of all the documentaries listed here it taught me the least.

It focuses on two teenagers who get jobs on a Farewell Cruise: a cocky, spoiled, male, middle class only-child and a daughter of dirt poor illiterates who live in a shack in the flood path of the soon-to-be-dammed Yangtze river. The film has its poignant moments: the family moving out of their shack as the flood waters seep in, the frustration of the daughter as she watches her hopes for a better future evaporate when her family makes her get a job instead of continuing her education, and the solitary songs and prayers of a poor and ancient-looking Christian woman. The social class contrast between the two teenagers is stark, as is that of the Western tourists and the Chinese crew.

Last Train Home

Last Train Home (归途列车) is a painfully intimate look into how the pressures of the migrant worker life tear at the fabric of one particular migrant worker family. With virtually no narration or subtitles but a few off-camera discussion prompts, we see a lot about migrants’ unbearable travel and working conditions but learn even more about what migrant work can mean for Chinese village families. While news reports typically highlight the impossibly huge train station crowds or abusive factory conditions, Last Train Home includes those things while emphasizing the migrant workers as family members — showing them less as workers and more as fathers, mothers and daughters, with grandparents and children left behind in the village. It humanizes migrant workers better than anything else I’ve seen or read.

Last Train Home is sometimes similar to Up the Yangtze in style; there’s zero narration and long, patient shots in which the viewer can try to soak up the feeling of a scene. But Last Train Home, I think, teaches us more; its characters and their general situation are representative of more people, even if the situations of most migrant families might not match this family’s situation in every aspect. Like China Blue, it shows the personal stories of specific migrant workers, but where China Blue focuses on economic injustice and migrant-employer conflict while giving us migrant worker family life as back-story or sub-plot, Last Train Home focuses on the migrants’ relational and economic realities and the strain the migrant life inflicts upon the family.

I will add a Content Warning: Last Train Home contains one scene of domestic violence.

For more about migrant workers, see our Migrant Workers category, which includes:

If you were only going to watch one of these, I’d recommend Last Train Home, with Young & Restless as a close second.