Last House Standing 2005
Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Chao Gan & Zi Liang
Directed by Chao Gan & Zi Liang
DVD, color, 88 min.
College - Adult
Area Studies, China
Date Entered: 03/08/2007Reviewed by Sheila Intner, Professor Emerita, Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Simmons College GSLIS at Mt. Holyoke, South Hadley, MA
The inevitable conflicts between progress and tradition, between the primary interests of individuals and the society in which they live are portrayed in this well-made documentary. The most striking element, however, is the ineffable sadness of its protagonist, Mr. Jiang. As his story emerges through interviews by a temporary tenant in his house--a Beijing journalist sent to Shanghai to work on an assignment--an aura of hopelessness envelops the viewer. By its end, one realizes his spirit is broken despite his cool, unchanging, outward demeanor.
One of a large affluent Shanghai family, Mr. Jiang’s father left his wife and children when Jiang was a boy, fleeing political unrest in mainland China. Not long after, his mother takes several siblings and abandons him, too, leaving for Hong Kong and, later, America, where most of his immediate family resettle. They write, begging him to join them, but he steadfastly refuses to leave Shanghai. His mother gives him the deed to the house, a mansion by Shanghai standards, standing close to the city center with its growing landscape of skyscrapers.
The narrator rents a room from Mr. Jiang. He does not work. Mysterious assets left by his family are enough to provide the daily necessities, a decent wardrobe, and an occasional meal in a fine hotel. His few friends claim Mr. Jiang is a good dancer and once enjoyed the company of women, though he never married. The viewer learns he was taken away during the Cultural Revolution and did not return for 18 years. When he comes back, he renews his vow never to leave his house and, up to this point, has kept his promise.
Now, the government has condemned the entire neighborhood where Mr. Jiang’s house stands and is demolishing the buildings, one by one. Refusing to face the inevitable, Mr. Jiang continues his routine, varying it only to evade officials prodding him to sell the house so it, too, can be torn down to make way for the city’s development project. Eventually, surrounded by rubble, he agrees. On the eve of his 60th birthday, he leaves, never to see the house again. What will he do? Where will he go? Viewers are left to ponder these questions, but get no answers. What remains is the profound sadness of Mr. Jiang--abandoned by father, mother, siblings, and, in his old age, by his sole anchor--the last house standing.
The film exhibits good camerawork and editing, mainly live action with occasional archival clips, and enjoys deliberate pacing and excellent subtitles. Its only drawback is the narrator’s grating voice, belting out questions and demanding answers. But, perhaps, this too symbolizes the brash, loud new China riding roughshod over the quiet, gentle, old way of life.
Recommended as background material for China area studies.
- Grand Prize, EIDF, 2005