MUBI is showing Shengze Zhu's Another Year (2016) as part of a collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center for their Art of the Real festival. The film is playing April 30 - May 30, 2017 in most countries around the world.
How does a person change little by little throughout a year? And how is one’s life shaped by the trivial things and subtle moments that one experiences? It could be the person who sits beside you on the train, or an advertisement that you see on your way to the grocery store… The idea of making Another Year is to examine the accumulated power of mundane happenings, and to reveal how the mundane could appear mysterious and beautiful with the passage of time.
I first met this three-generation family in the summer of 2012 in Wuhan, China. Wuhan is my hometown, and is the capital city of Hubei Province, as well as the largest and the most populous city in central China. That summer, I conducted a participatory photography workshop at a local elementary school, during which I taught a group of about twenty children aged 8-12 basic skills of photography. All of my students were originally from the countryside but then moved to Wuhan with their parents who seek for jobs and a better life in the city. They are called “migrant workers” in China, a term referring to people who have a rural household registration but now live and work in urban cities. Migrant workers often find odd jobs at construction sites, factories and restaurants, and have limited access to urban welfare and healthcare.
The eldest child of this migrant worker’s family, Qin, was one of my students. I visited her family one day, and I was literally shocked by their situation: the six family members (three generations) shared one cramped room (about 200 square feet), with no privacy at all. This room functioned as their bedroom, living room and dining room, and Qin sometimes wrote her homework on the bed.
I made my first feature documentary Out of Focus based on the participatory photo workshop, and Qin was one of the leading characters. It was during the editing of this film that I noticed Qin’s unsettled relationship with her mother, and more importantly, I found that the most compelling moments were those that happened around dinner time. There were a lot of frictions and fights around the dinner table, but what captivated me most were their rambling conversations, facial expressions, gestures, and the family dynamics. I came to realize that it was those subtle accrual of details that evinced their presence. Thus, I decided to make a film that solely captures their dinners.
This definitely is not a film about people eating: it is about the space, and the intimate relation between the family and the cramped dwelling; it is about time, the fleeting beauty of time, and how a person—not only the family, but also me—changes little by little over the year. That is why I spent fourteen months filming this family, because I wanted to embrace the passage of time and the changes it brought.
Beginning around Chinese New Year and ending at “Chu Xi” (the Chinese New Year Eve), all the meals unfold in real-time through static, long takes, which, in turn, reveal the rhythm of a family’s life on the margins of urban society. Due to the low household income and the household registration system in China (“Hukou”), the life of this family is among the most unstable and vulnerable. The family was forced to separate after the grandma’s stroke—the mother had to return to the village to take care of the grandma because she had no access to urban healthcare; Qin was asked to quit school and find a job to support the family in spite of her young age… For them, another year means future and hope, but still, there are problems that cannot be solved, and there are pains that cannot be alleviated.