A Hit Drama Asks: Who Killed China’s Industrial Heartland?
Workers, factories, and heavy industry have been a major focus of China’s film industry since the founding of the People’s Republic. In the high socialist period of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, films like “Bridge” and “The Girl from Shanghai” put the heroism of the working class front and center, showcasing ordinary laborers’ contributions to industrial development. In the 1980s and early ’90s, directors shifted their cameras from the factory floor to back offices, where reform-minded factory managers preached the importance of operating in accordance with the market.
That optimism gradually faded as the massive state-owned enterprises that once dominated Chinese industry — and guaranteed lifetime employment to millions of factory workers — began to buckle under competition from private enterprise and endemic corruption in the 1990s. Even pro-reform films like 1996’s “The Hero Will Not Turn Back” had to grapple with the layoffs that were devastating China’s traditional industrial centers.
Today, the industrial heartland of the late 1990s and early 2000s exists in the popular imagination as a place of crisis and danger, a consensus reflected in newer films about the period. The definitive take on the genre may be Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” a taut thriller about an unsolved murder in China’s northeastern rust belt. Diao was one of the first to recognize the region as a perfect backdrop for neo-noir tales of revenge and cold-blooded murder, but the post-industrial thriller has become something of a genre unto itself in recent years, thanks in part to works like Lou Ye’s “The Shadow Play,” Diao’s “The Wild Goose Lake,” and, more recently, Xin Shuang’s hit miniseries “The Long Season.”
Released to rapturous reviews this April, “The Long Season” sees Xin, the mastermind behind the 2020 hit “The Bad Kids,” focus his lens on a northern factory town. Set at the fictional Hualin Iron and Steel Works, “The Long Season” tells the story of an unsolved murder across three different years — 1997, 1998, and 2016 — and through the eyes of two different generations of residents: an older group still reeling from being laid off and a younger generation who grew up with none of the guarantees taken for granted by their parents.
The heart of the series is train conductor Wang Xiang. Played with pathos by the popular comic actor Fan Wei, Wang’s life is turned upside down in 1998 by a series of interconnected traumas: first, the death of his son and his concurrent layoff from the factory, then his wife’s suicide. For Wang, the autumn of 1998 was the moment both of his “homes” — his family and his work unit — died.
“The Long Season” explores this dichotomy through the eyes of two different Wang Xiangs. The first, shown at his 1997 peak, is a model worker in the socialist mold, proud of his factory and active in its public life. The second, grimly holding on in 2016, is an old man who has lost almost everything except his wits.
Likewise, there are two unresolved murders haunting the latter Wang: the grisly dismemberment case that shook the factory — and Wang’s family — in the fall of 1998, and the demise of his employer to a mix of greed, corruption, and managerial incompetence. The spiritual pain caused by the 1998 layoffs freezes the characters of “The Long Season” in time. They can move neither forward nor back, but remain stuck, like still-life sketches of their former selves.
Unlike the factory-set films of the 1990s, in which layoffs were portrayed as a necessary evil on China’s road to global competitiveness, “The Long Season” reflects a radically different understanding of that tumultuous decade: Just, kind, and honest people were laid off, victimized by the factory directors and Hong Kong-based financiers — stand-ins for the ruling class — who embezzled and misappropriated public funds.
Whatever the truth of this depiction, the growing consensus that the 1990s went overboard is as much about the current day as anything that happened 30 years ago. Films and series like “Black Coal, Thin Ice” and “The Long Season” give voice to widespread concerns about social mobility and declining opportunities for meritocratic advancement at a time when the appeal of the market economy — which promised that individual success would be determined on the basis of hard work, not inherited wealth or connections — is no longer quite so clear-cut.
Most of the young viewers who’ve made “The Long Season” a hit did not directly experience the institutional upheaval of the 1990s, but in the face of an unstable job market and mounting economic pressure, many Chinese yearn for an idealized version of the country’s cradle-to-the-grave employment system. The promise of overnight wealth, however unlikely, that made the end of guaranteed employment seem worthwhile now feels out of reach. Instead, they dream of a stable life within the system and empathize with those who, like Wang, had their sense of security pulled out from under them.
At the end of “The Long Season,” the two Wangs, young and old, meet for the first time. The elderly Wang Xiang waves to his younger self and tells him to “look forward, not back” as the younger Wang’s train surges ahead into the still industrialized countryside. His destination seems to be a parallel universe, one without the darkness or negativity that later overshadowed his life.
On the one hand, it’s a romantic sendoff for the character, one that reflects the elder Wang’s relief at finally knowing the cause of his son’s death. On the other, his words ring hollow, a feeling reinforced by the show’s choice to set the exchange to the 1989 Mandopop hit “Look Back Again.” Knowing what we do about Wang’s future, who wouldn’t want to live in the past?
Translator: Matt Turner; editor: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: A still from the online series “The Long Season.” From@网剧漫长的季节 on Weibo)