Chinese Dinner Table Talk Tells Universal Story

In “Another Year,” 13 family meals show the personal side of China’s urbanization.

There are only 13 scenes in “Another Year,” a three-hour long documentary, and all of them feature the same long, static shots of the same family doing the same, everyday activity: eating a meal.

It’s a bold visual experiment by director Zhu Shengze, a 32-year-old Chicago-based documentary filmmaker. Given no context, the audience is plunged into the life of one Chinese family through their dinnertime discussions that range from whether to buy new chopsticks to how to deal with Grandma’s stroke.

The effect is that of feeling part of the family’s joys and frustrations about the mundane, and seeing how, over the film’s 14-month timespan, small changes can have big repercussions. “I think trivial things add up and have a tremendous impact on life’s trajectory,” Zhu says by phone from Tromsø, Norway, where she had been attending a film festival.

The rule-breaking approach to storytelling is a constant in Zhu’s work. Her two other documentaries to date also feature original visual approaches: For her debut, “Out of Focus,” she used the work of underprivileged urban children who she had taught to use a camera, and for her latest film, “Present.Perfect.,” she edited footage of small-time livestreamers into a story about loneliness.

People from marginalized communities are central in all three films. The family in “Another Year” — three children, their parents, and one grandmother — are among China’s hundreds of millions of internal migrants. They left the countryside of Hubei province for its capital Wuhan, where they can find better-paying work but are also treated as second-class citizens due to government policies excluding them from all kinds of welfare.

Their borderline status forces the family to make difficult decisions when the grandmother suffers a stroke. Because she can only enjoy subsidized health care in her hometown, the family splits — the grandmother, mother, and two young children return to the countryside; the older daughter and the father stay in Wuhan for school and work.

The dinner table is at the center of family life in China, the place for relatives to relax and catch up with each other’s lives. “Another Year” begins and ends with Spring Festival, the biggest meal of the year. Continue to read the full article here.



– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.