A Billion Homes: Chinese Dinner Table Talk Tells Universal Story
This is the second article in a three-part series exploring the meaning of the Lunar New Year holiday for Chinese families across the world. Read part one via the embedded link.
There are only 13 scenes in “Another Year,” a three-hour long documentary, and all of them feature the same long, static shots of the same family doing the same, everyday activity: eating a meal.
It’s a bold visual experiment by director Zhu Shengze, a 32-year-old Chicago-based documentary filmmaker. Given no context, the audience is plunged into the life of one Chinese family through their dinnertime discussions that range from whether to buy new chopsticks to how to deal with Grandma’s stroke.
The effect is that of feeling part of the family’s joys and frustrations about the mundane, and seeing how, over the film’s 14-month timespan, small changes can have big repercussions. “I think trivial things add up and have a tremendous impact on life’s trajectory,” Zhu says by phone from Tromsø, Norway, where she had been attending a film festival.
The rule-breaking approach to storytelling is a constant in Zhu’s work. Her two other documentaries to date also feature original visual approaches: For her debut, “Out of Focus,” she used the work of underprivileged urban children who she had taught to use a camera, and for her latest film, “Present.Perfect.,” she edited footage of small-time livestreamers into a story about loneliness.
People from marginalized communities are central in all three films. The family in “Another Year” — three children, their parents, and one grandmother — are among China’s hundreds of millions of internal migrants. They left the countryside of Hubei province for its capital Wuhan, where they can find better-paying work but are also treated as second-class citizens due to government policies excluding them from all kinds of welfare.
Their borderline status forces the family to make difficult decisions when the grandmother suffers a stroke. Because she can only enjoy subsidized health care in her hometown, the family splits — the grandmother, mother, and two young children return to the countryside; the older daughter and the father stay in Wuhan for school and work.
The dinner table is at the center of family life in China, the place for relatives to relax and catch up with each other’s lives. “Another Year” begins and ends with Spring Festival, the biggest meal of the year. The family rarely sits at the table together: Somebody’s always missing, be it the mother chasing to feed a toddler, or the father yet to return home from work. But in the final scene, on the eve of Spring Festival, the entire family is finally complete, bonding and healing through shared food.
The family’s story reflects the lives of people in and outside of China. “I am trying to tell this family’s story through emotions and struggles that are shared by everyone, whether they are Europeans, Americans, or whoever,” Zhu says. “Despite this family’s rural roots, poor economic conditions, and squalid living conditions, the topics the mother and daughter talk about are the same as those discussed around everyone’s dinner table.”
This is the story behind Zhu Shengze’s “Another Year,” as told to Sixth Tone and edited for brevity and clarity.
When I was editing “Out of Focus,” I found the interactions of one girl with her mother at the dinner table particularly interesting. Their arguments were like the ones I had with my mother. I jokingly said to my producer and cinematographer, Yang Zhengfan, that I should make a film just about dinner. He answered, “Why not?”
We discussed how we could make this film. Do we shoot lunches, or dinners? Do we shoot every day, or once a month? Do we follow one character, or use static shots? We did a test shoot in December of 2012 and decided on the format: One year of dinners, filmed once a month.
I figured that this family of migrant workers would have quite unstable lives. They are vulnerable and easily affected by their surroundings. At the time I figured there would be some changes over the year, but not necessarily anything dramatic. But the grandmother’s stroke instantly disrupted the family’s rhythm and structure. The mother did not want to go back to the countryside. There, just buying a pack of salt means you need to catch a ride to a nearby town. In Wuhan, all you have to do is walk out your front door. I visited their village, and my impression was that it was very empty. There were just elderly people. The young had all left for work.
The oldest daughter loves Wuhan. Before moving there, her parents had taken her to the city during holidays. She said she never wanted to go back to the countryside. Later, she attended a public junior high school in Wuhan, a boarding school, and was only home during the weekends. In a way, it made my shoot easier, because it meant I did not need to film from Monday to Thursday.
Her dad works in a nearby market for construction materials. He drives a tricycle to deliver goods every day. Her mother worked in a clothing factory, but because she had to take care of her children, she couldn’t be there all day and would bring clothes home to finish her work there. From her perspective, she had to take care of two small children and her mother-in-law, so she felt trapped. Before her stroke, the grandmother would contribute to the family by collecting and selling recyclables. That was their life.
They lived in Hua’anli, an area with many migrant workers not far from Wuhan’s Hankou Railway Station. You can constantly hear the sound of trains because the tracks run through the whole community. It has become more developed now with a new business center, but at that time, it was not a particularly prosperous area. To Wuhanese people like myself, it was an area where the city ended and its outskirts began.
Many from their village who worked in Wuhan lived in this community, so they looked after each other. At first people would leave their children behind in their hometown. But it is not a particularly healthy way for children to grow up, so many started bringing their children over to live together.
I think they are a hardworking family trying to get a foothold in the city and maintain a decent living standard. The father had a good income by Wuhan standards, but it was unstable. Within his ability, he worked hard to make the family live under the best circumstances. They did what they could to meet their children’s wishes, such as having smartphones, snacks, or new clothes.
Chinese people’s love is subtle and forbearing. They won’t say “I love you” every day like Americans do. They won’t make physical contact. The mother wouldn’t hug her oldest daughter. The girl was in a rebellious period, so she definitely did not want to be hugged anyway. In fact, sometimes she argued with her mother, because her mother really wanted to control her and nagged her a lot. She would say, “eat this, eat that.”
But at the same time, the meals in the film are quite elaborate. That’s because they were cooked for the oldest daughter, who was only home during the weekends. There wouldn’t be so many dishes during the week. The mother wouldn’t ever mention this, but it came up once during an argument. The daughter said to her mother, “You don’t love me. Why do you have so many children?” Her mother replied, “How are we mistreating you? I made so many dishes just for you.” In Chinese families, parental love is often not expressed with words, but through small details like these.
I first filmed with wide shots, so that everyone, the space, and their relationships with the space could be seen. But slowly, with the passage of time, as you gradually understand the family, the frame gets tighter, and you see their faces and other details more clearly. After the grandmother suffered a stroke, I hesitated whether to film in the city or in their village. But I decided to leave Wuhan, because all but the father and daughter were forced to as well because of government policies and their circumstances.
I didn’t choose the order of the scenes, but did I choose on what to focus. Otherwise, it is entirely their life. Every time I shot some footage, I could not tell what would happen the next month. Framing was the only thing I had prepared. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. The advantage is that for each take, I had one month to think.
I didn’t want to explain everything to the viewers, because I think that would have been quite boring. I like to leave space for the audience to imagine. The narrative I hope to build is open and inclusive, so that everyone can watch the film and leave with different impressions.
This film touches upon family planning and China’s medical system, but those are not the focus. Policies and the environment greatly affect everyone’s lives. I wanted to present a larger social context through this family — about urbanization in China, for example. Why must villagers sacrifice and leave behind spacious houses in the countryside to cram into a room smaller than 20 square meters in the city? Why does migration happen?
I think trivial things add up and have a tremendous impact on life’s trajectory. I wanted to embrace life itself — the chance, the openness — and I’m against using the director’s own perspective, experience, background, or point-of-view to construct and impose something, especially to build dramatic conflicts. It’s the last thing I want to do.
Editors: Qi Ya and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A screenshot from “Another Year” shows one of 13 Lunar New Year’s Eve dinners: A family of six shares a full table of dishes while waiting to watch CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala, China’s biggest television event of the year. Courtesy of Zhu Shengze)