Another Year (2016)

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The documentary Another Year from filmmaker Shengze Zhu is about a year in the life of a poor Chinese migrant family. Migrant workers typically travel from their rural hometowns into the city for factory or construction jobs. This film takes place in the city of Wuhan, China, and we meet a family of six: a husband and wife, their three children, and the husband’s mother. This three-generation family lives in just a 200 square-foot apartment in the city, and the documentary attempts to provide a glimpse into their lives through 13 takes, one a month, over the course of a year. Each take is filmed in real-time, lasting anywhere from around seven to 20 minutes, and takes place during meal times.

The camera is in a fixed position and does not move at all during the scenes, but it is placed in a different location with each take. So in each scene people may walk in and out of the frame, or you will hear conversations in the background, but in essence it’s like having a seat at the table with this family. Overall, it’s very ordinary as there are takes where you’re just watching people eat, watch tv, or stare blankly. But it’s also fascinating and sometimes unsettling. The film begins in January, and everyone in the apartment is bundled up in their coats. Mom is fixing dinner off camera in the tiny kitchen off of the main room and you hear the youngest son, a toddler crying for a glass of water. The main living area consists of a small dining table and a few chairs, a small television, and some beds lining the walls. There is no storage space, so items are haphazardly piled up in corners. When dad comes home from his factory shift, mom enters the scene and starts complaining about how she can’t stand his mother and that she needs to be sent back to their village because she nags all the time. Meanwhile, grandma is sitting right there in the room listening to all of this like this is normal. The whole scenario is uncomfortable to watch.

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In the next month’s scene, we learn that grandma has just had a stroke. Dad has to take time off from work to tend to his mother, and over the next several months the family has to make decisions to adjust to the new hardships. Dad and the eldest daughter, Qin, will stay in the city apartment while mom and the younger children will take care of grandma out in the country. The camera eventually spends a few months in the rural location. There are moments here where it increasingly gets unnerving as grandma is on the receiving end of verbal abuse by the mother. Grandma looks rough from the stroke, and since migrant workers usually don’t have access to healthcare, her recovery is slow.

There are some interesting conversations that arise. In one of the scenes in the rural house, the conversation turns to a woman in the village who is pregnant and trying to conceal her pregnancy from the Family Planning Commission but worried that other villagers will tattle on her. There are conversations about money struggles, plenty of arguing between mom and dad, and plenty of activity from the two youngest children with their pent up energy.

The film clocks in at 181 minutes, and while it consists of ordinary people dealing in life’s hardships, it’s fascinating to watch. You never know what each new year will bring. What’s also interesting is the change these people go through over the year. The mom starts out arguing and complaining heavily, but by the end of the year she is actually smiling and more content. Meanwhile the eldest daughter Qin becomes more frustrated and bitter by the end of the year. The youngest children are hyper and running around, but after a year they are now calmer and able to sit and eat at the table on their own. And by the end, grandma is talking and looks better. I have to admit, this film put me through an emotional ringer. There is no judgment from the camera, it simply just opens the window. It’s boring yet fascinating all at the same time, and totally human and worth the glance.

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