The days on West Street pass by much as they have for centuries. Neighbours sit outside small, makeshift homes crammed along both sides of this ancient Chinese road. Chairs, old couches, an accumulation of cheap household items find their way outside.
The street itself is only wide enough for a scooter to wind down, slowly, amid the children and old folks milling around. This is a corridor of old, street-level urbanity, far removed from the high-rise living of modern China.
In fact, the street, located in the southwest city of Dujiangyan, is slated for redevelopment. It was once an entry point to the important Song-Mao trail, a tributary of the Silk Road trade route. It has since become a historic relic. The area is also known for the ancient Dujiangyan Irrigation System, one of the country’s earliest feats of engineering on a mass scale.
The Vanishing Spring Light is the first in a four-part documentary series recording a traditional way of living on West Street before the machinery moves in and the area is forever changed.
Rather than widespread societal change, first-time Chinese director Xun Yu narrows his focus as tightly as possible. In this initial film, he profiles Grandma Jiang, a woman of frail health in her 70s. She has lived on West Street for decades, once operating a business selling fruit, nuts and soda and then converting the front of her house into a barebones Mahjong parlour – really just a few tables where people meet to play.
Grandma Jiang is respected, but not revered. Life on the street is too hard-scrabble for that. Neighbours and her family diligently look after her, as she becomes increasingly feeble, but they do so out of duty, less out of enthusiasm.
Most of her daughters live away. So her married son has assumed responsibility, although he is usually out, aimlessly driving his taxi looking for fares. (A drinker and smoker, he’s not in the greatest health himself.) His young wife is left having to do most of the care-giving. Everyone feels trapped. Of course the intimate details of these people’s lives, the interior of their homes, the music of the conversation, is far more interesting than the overall story.
A wave of documentaries, most noticeably Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze and Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, have recorded this clash between the contemporary and traditional on the most personal level. Those two films and The Vanishing Spring Light were produced in part by Canadian filmmaker Daniel Cross, who has helped foster this particular documentary take on China.
Yet this same societal upheaval is also seen in the dramatic films of Jia Zhangke and his younger generation of Chinese filmmakers. On film, the cheap materialism looks stunning in its ugliness, as do the barren interiors in The Vanishing Spring Light. And the people on camera seem stunned by the rapid change around them, yet have a far-old wisdom deep within them. It’s just that most of the people in all of these films have trouble expressing that.
As Grandma Jiang’s health fails badly, she literally slips into the background, into a dark, damp bedroom in the back of the house, away from life on the street. The camera lingers on her for long stretches at a time, recording her isolation. The director has long talks with her as the camera rolls. Her life is passing away, as is the traditional ways of life on West Street, and no one can really find the meaning of it all.
The Vanishing Spring Light
- Directed by Xun Yu
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars