Screening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.
Director Li Junhu’s documentary “Where Should I Go?” explores one of the most interesting issues in contemporary China, the interaction between the rural and the urban. Covering themes of migration, education and money, the film presents a humanistic rather than overtly political view, and as suggested by the title asks questions rather than providing easy answers. Shot in 2010, the film is set to screen as part of the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival in London.
The film tells the intertwined stories of two families who move from the countryside to the city in order to try and get a proper education for their children. The first involves a woman called Zhang Zhi Li, who decides to leave her two adolescent daughters back at their small town rural home, while she and her husband take their son to the city, hoping to have him enrolled in a school. This proves even more difficult than they imagined, while their absence takes its toll on the two girls, whose own education suffers and behaviour worsens. The film also follows Yang Xiu Qing, a woman who has migrated from the countryside with her daughter and young son, having spent the money left by her late husband to buy them city resident permits. She and her daughter both encounter great hardship as they do everything they can to support the boy’s studies, struggling to come up with the money for his tuition fees.
“Where Should I Go?” is a fascinating film precisely because it avoids any kind of black and white simplistic rural-urban dichotomy, dealing instead with the complex interactions between the two. The two families to an extent exist in both spheres, forced to try and to leave the countryside behind by the recognition of the importance of education, yet financially trapped and caught in a poverty line no-man’s land from which there is no obvious escape. Both Zhang Zhi Li and Yang Xiu Qing make massive sacrifices, working low paid, menial jobs with no future and having no real lives of their own, though even this is not enough to allow them to fulfil their dreams.
Although the film certainly offers up social criticism and shows a great deal of inequality, in particular in the many ways in which the deck is clearly stacked against the rural poor, the problems faced by the two families stem mainly from the question as to whether their dreams are unrealistic. There’s a definite harshness to the reality featured in the film, and as their situations gradually become even direr, Li Junhu shows the women wrestling with the heartbreaking decision whether to stay and endure in the hope that things will get better, or to go back to the countryside and make the best of things. This is treated with great sympathy, as Zhang Zhi Li and Yang Xiu Qing are decent and hard working, and have come to the city purely for their children’s’ education and to try and secure for them a better future, clearly believing that in the fast-changing modern Chinese society they have no other choice.
With a running time of about an hour, the film is concise and well-paced, Li Junhu showing great skill as a story teller. Although the two families’ stories are essentially quite similar, the way in which the film cuts between the two keeps things interesting throughout, and while it lacks a narrative or voice over, the structure is strong and in its own way dramatic. Given the themes, the film is unsurprisingly bleak at times, though Li’s handling is a pleasing mixture of the subjective and the intimate and as a result it never comes across as being a mere pity-plea or rant. No blame is assigned or sought, and the film succeeds in its aim of shining a light on the problem faced by so many in China, and is all the more affecting and genuine for its balanced view.
There are certainly a fair few documentaries around about the relationship between the rural and urban in modern China, though “Where Should I Go?” is arguably one of the best. Compassionate and involving, it manages to explore the issue without ever feeling forced, Li Junhu doing a great job of conveying the human cost and confusion of the unstoppable spread of modernisation.
Li Junhu (director)