May 21, 2015
Where Should I Go? – China, 2011
Junhu Li’s moving documentary Where Should I Go? follows two rural families as they try to make a better life for themselves in the big city. In both cases, their attempts involve sacrificing a great deal for their young sons, whom they seem to regard as their family’s best and only hope. Consider, for a moment, what this involves. It entails uprooting entire families and moving them to the city; in the case of one family, it means splitting a family in two and unintentionally creating an irreparable chasm between the matriarch of the family and the two daughters left behind in the countryside.
In the film’s opening scene, we watch as Zhi-li Zhang, a 35-year-old mother of three, returns to her rural home only to find the house a pigsty and one of her daughters AWOL. Her concern, if one wants to call it that, is expressed in the form of anger and physical confrontation, and it does nothing to re-establish the familial bond that they must have once had. We learn that at some time in the past Zhi-li left with her son to join her husband in the city; her daughters remained to fend for themselves. The parents’ thinking was that their son would get a better education in the city and that there was only enough money to spend on one “decent” education.
The other family the film follows is that of Xiu Qing Yang, a widowed mother of two in her forties. Her plight differs from Zhi-li’s slightly, in that she has brought both of her children to the big city and purchased residential permits for each of them. This enables them to go to school. However, school in the big city is so expensive (twice as much as for them as someone born there) that she can only afford to send her son to school, and to do that, she has to use most of her daughter’s wages.
The film works on several levels. It lays bare the plight of migrant workers who feel they have no hope of survival if they don’t go to the city. However, as the film reveals, what awaits them is often a life of hardship, one in which their days are often filled with long twelve hour shifts (only eight of which are paid), demanding bosses who do not appear to be following labor laws, and wages so low that they cannot afford even secondhand furniture. It is telling that Xiu Qing works as a cleaning lady and her daughter waits tables at a night club. They live paycheck to paycheck with no real chance of upward mobility. The film also brings to light the great chance some people take when they put all of their eggs in one basket. Of the two young boys we meet, only one of them seems to have a bright academic future. The other seems aware just how good he has it and has decided to take full advantage of that fact.
Unfortunately, with a running time of just 60 minutes, the film is not able to explore its subject matter in as much detail as one would like, and at times I felt as if I was only getting a cursory understanding of the families and their plights. I would like to have known more about Zhi-li’s daughters and just who is looking out for them when their mother is gone, and I wanted to know more about how Xiu Qing’s daughter felt about the life she had in the city. After all, it couldn’t have been what she had envisioned that first day she learned that she was moving. In hindsight, it may have been a mistake a film of this length to stretch itself so thin. By trying to tell two stories, we get an incomplete picture of both of them, and the film lacks the focus that made Lixin Fan‘s Last Train Home so compelling.
Still, Where Should I Go? is worth-watching. Its characters are worthy of our empathy, even as they make choices that most of us would deem to be ill-advised. And the film ends with scenes of such power that I found them hard to shake. In these fleeting moments, we are presented with a microcosm of the irreversible consequences of China’s mass exodus out of the countryside, two daughters alone – one looking as if she is barely holding it together and the other, now a high school dropout, with no real future ahead of her. It is truly heartbreaking, and one can only hope it serves as a wake-up call. (on DVD in Region 3)
*Where Should I Go? is in Chinese with English subtitles. The subtitles have occasional grammar and spelling errors.