From the Archives: A Conversation with Lixin Fan

David Liu | San Francisco, California

Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, a three-year chronicle of a Chinese migrant worker family, won the Golden Gate Award for Best Investigative Documentary Feature at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival.

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David Liu: What are some of the major differences between working for a state-run organization like China Central Television and working overseas as an independent filmmaker? 

Lixin Fan: When I was with CCTV, I worked as a cameraman because I think images would be more truthful to and closer to reality. But as an independent filmmaker, you obviously have total creative control of your own work, which is quite different than working for a state-owned broadcasting company.

DL: How would you describe your experience thus far as a Chinese-Canadian, and has it affected your worldview as a film director at all?

LF: I think it does, in a way. Before I left China to live in Canada, I would always look at issues just from a Chinese perspective. I would see things as more of a Chinese problem, you know, so many challenges: big population, the widening gap between rich and poor, et al. I tended to look for explanations and reasons solely from a domestic point of view. But then I moved to Canada and you’re suddenly exposed to more information, so I gradually started to look at China from a more international perspective.

Really, for any country nowadays in this globalized world, you should not only look at problems within that country. It’s also juxtaposed among multinational relationships, and the economic relationships between countries. Like China and the United States, they are competing in some ways, but in other areas they have to cooperate. So this experience of living outside of China was quite interesting for me, in that it forced me to look from those perspectives.

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DL: Over the past decade, Chinese cinema has gained considerable ground overseas; yet at the same time, many of its major filmmakers have been accused of pandering to Western tastes. So I wanted to ask, did you make this film with an audience in mind? If so, is your target audience more ideally Chinese or Western?

LF: I’ve always wanted to make a film the way I want it to be. By saying that, I’m not excluding the idea of thinking for your audience, because essentially you want people to be able to see and understand what you’re trying to show through your film. So I wouldn’t say I’m catering to a certain audience, but I am keeping them in mind while I was making the team. You’re absolutely right that Chinese cinema has created a larger presence on the international stage; there are times when people in China would say, ‘you’re showing the downside of the country, the dark side of the society, to cater to audiences the Western world.’

DL: That’s what my parents would always say. 

LF: Yes. And it’s interesting, the older generation, because I would say that the younger generation has less of that kind of attitude. I had that criticism directed toward me as well when I was showing the film at last year’s Guangzhou Documentary Film Festival. There were people asking me: ‘where did the money come from?’ I think they had their argument in mind. So I told them it was international money, from Canada to the United States - we also had people from France and China helping us, with respect to investments. But then they would come to their own conclusions.

I don’t agree with their accusations against us, the documentary filmmakers — not just me, but many of my peer filmmakers — of not loving the country. I would always use this allegory: your mother is sick. In order for her to get better, you need to give her this bitter medicine to drink. And as a son, you’re supposed to do that. Of course if your mother is upset about the medicine being too bitter, she might even slap you. But what do you do? Do you lie to her and tell her “you’re fine, don’t worry,” or do you make her drink the medicine so that she can get better? What’s the right thing to do?

I think those who accuse documentary filmmakers or other artists who show the real side of China for catering to the West, they should think about why we’re doing this. We want to do this because we want this country to be better. We want the Chinese people to have a better life - not only this, but we want a better world in general.

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DL: Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks and Jia Zhangke’s 24 City are often cited as examples of contemporary successes in Chinese documentary filmmaking. Do you see Last Train Home as a successor to their influence, or would you say that you’re attempting a different approach?

LF: I enjoy Jia Zhangke’s films, especially Still Life. I think its influence definitely shows in my work, from the visual style to the pacing. Also, the way of approaching life, through a very quiet observation of the process of life. So I think yes, I am influenced by those films, but I’m not sure if I’m doing anything dramatically different. Again, Last Train Home is my first film, I’m just starting to develop my own style, so we’ll see where this takes me to.

DL: Your film touched me deeply. I immigrated from China to the U.S. when I was only four, so I owe my interest in China to my parents encouraging me to read and write the language, preserving the culture. In Last Train Home, I really felt as if I was watching my own loved ones, even though the life stories are completely different.

LF: When I was showing the film in Guangzhou, there was a very similar emotional reaction. Several young people from the countryside studying at the university in Guangzhou walked up to me after the screening, telling me that it was like watching their own life on the screen.

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Giants. Akira Kurosawa greeting Satyajit Ray at the 1982 Venice Film Festival. A friend and admirer of the latter, Kurosawa once declared: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

GREAT SCENES
My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)

Ford was one of the earliest directors to harness the power of diegetic music, perhaps never more masterfully so than in My Darling Clementine. In this sequence, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) walks Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) to a frontier church dedication, accompanied by the strains of “Shall We Gather At the River.”

In an interview with critic Scott Foundas in 2009, director James Gray (Two Lovers, The Immigrant) expressed his admiration for the scene:

“I think Ford was maybe a little tougher than we are, and that pathos, that melancholy, that sense of loss is so remarkable. If I ever make a movie that has one nine-hundredth the longing, the kind of profound emotional commitment that Henry Fonda walking to church has, I’ll be a happy guy.”

A Dream Controlled

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

David Liu | 16 July 2014

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A short list of directors who produced masterpieces near or after the half-century mark of their lives might look something like this:

Vittorio De Sica — Bicycle Thieves (47) and Umberto D. (51)
Elia Kazan — America, America (54)
Krzysztof Kieslowski — The Decalogue (48), Three Colors (52)
Sergio Leone — Once Upon a Time in America (55)
Yasujiro Ozu — Tokyo Story (50)
Martin Scorsese — Goodfellas (47), The Age of Innocence (51)
Edward Yang — Yi Yi: A One and a Two (52)

Richard Linklater is 53, and Boyhood feels like his magnum opus. Shot in just 39 days over a twelve-year span, its production spans two presidential administrations, two wars, one recession, seven Harry Potter films, the resurgence of Apple and the emergence of Facebook. Four principal actors anchor the cast from beginning to end — Ellar Coltrane as the protagonist, Lorelei Linklater as his sister, Patricia Arquette as his mother, Ethan Hawke as his father. Boyhood is a work of staggering ambition, but instead of dream layers or collapsing space stations, its vision crystallizes in familiar places: faces, conversations, people sitting together, the daily minutiae of life lived.

Played by Coltrane beginning in the first grade, Mason Jr. is an ordinary boy growing up in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. His parents Mason Sr. and Olivia have separated, and he shares a bunk bed with his sister Samantha, who belts Britney Spears songs to annoy him. The mother decides to go back to school, prompting the father to commit himself to weekend visits. Life is told in quick vignettes and occasional jump cuts to mirror the fragmented memories of childhood. The first hour of the film unfolds like a gentle breeze before life gets more complicated. Children grow in age and stature. Adults grow older but not necessarily wiser. Scenes build in duration and intensity, from hilarious conversations in bowling alleys to long takes of individuals walking and chatting with each other. 

Music tells a story too. From Coldplay and Arcade Fire to Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, the opening chords of songs anticipate new years, new chapters, new feelings. There’s Soulja Boy announcing the swagger of adolescence, a charming folk serenade from a family of four to the in-laws, Gotye and Gnarls Barkley setting the mood for bars and pool halls. Curated from the memories of millennials and Generation Xers, the soundtrack for the film is tailor-made for our times, a coming-of-age Spotify souvenir. Like Scorsese before him, Linklater understands how pop music, used at the right moments, can take on a life of its own beyond the frame.

The script, written by Linklater and developed organically over the years, exemplifies the rare successful marriage between autobiography and period study. More than just an accumulation of the director’s memories and actors’ experiences, Boyhood presents an organic time lapse of what it’s like to laugh, cry, love and lose in 21st century America. Although much has been made of its focus on the perspectives of children, adults are equally omnipresent in Boyhood. Just as September 11 pushed the reset button on a new century, so too do the people of Boyhood strive to recalibrate the meaning of life by absorbing new experiences. Characters enter and exit without fanfare, leaving us to wonder. Moments we do not see become as powerful as moments captured.

Surely this is the most extraordinary cinematic coming-of-age since Antoine Doinel’s. That character, a creation and alter-ego of French New Wave director François Truffaut, began his journey toward adulthood in The 400 Blows — considered by many to be the medium’s seminal entry on childhood. With his lead actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, Truffaut went on to make four more films charting Antoine’s adult life. Five years after directing the final entry in the series, Love on the Run, Truffaut passed away prematurely at 52. One wonders how many more could have materialized. 

Richard Linklater is 53, one of the great American directors of our time, and his Boyhood contains just as much perception and empathy as Truffaut’s best films. By distilling a half-century of life in the cinema into twelve years in the life of a boy, he builds a world and shares all of it with us.

Here in my place and time
And here in my own skin
I can finally begin
Let the century pass me by…

— Arcade Fire, “Deep Blue”


Boyhood is playing in limited release in Los Angeles (ArcLight Hollywood, The Landmark) and New York City (IFC Center, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas).

289 plays

Hero - Family of the Year

Well-intentioned authenticity leads to greater truths. When I hear “Then He Kissed Me" by The Crystals, I think of romantic trysts, of nights out on the town, of Henry leading Karen through the back door of the Copacabana in Goodfellas. Though it doesn’t play out in its entirety in Boyhood, “Hero” by Family of the Year moves me in a similar way. I think of a child’s growing pains, of a mother’s love and fear of loss, of ends and beginnings being the same. 

García Márquez / Kurosawa

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In October 1990, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez visited Tokyo during the shooting of Akira Kurosawa’s penultimate feature, Rhapsody in August. García Márquez, who spent some years in Bogota as a film critic before penning landmark novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, spoke with Kurosawa for over six hours on a number of subjects.