Last Harvest (Canada, 2014), or before and after the deluge

In Tutai, Hubei Province (central China), elderly farmers Xu Xinsheng and Zhou Guangxiu have roughly a fortnight ahead of them before their relocation to a resettlement compound. Jane Hui Wang, making her directorial debut, accompanies Mr. and Mrs. Xu in Last Harvest as they prepare themselves for the move and, subsequently, adjust to their new dwelling some several hundred miles away. They are among an immense number of families who are essentially being uprooted from their homes and lush, green farmlands in the name of redevelopment, progress, modernisation, or whatever else one wants to call it. In the Xus’ case, it is specifically in the name of the massive, multibillion South-to-North Water Diversion/Transfer project, whose ‘middle route’ will flood arable farmland that includes the location of the couple’s home and help provide water to northern China. By the time of filming, as captions early in the film express, ‘three ancient cities and 247,000 acres’ have already been deluged. Personalising the experience of before and after the deluge, as it were, through the Xu couple, Wang presents a subtle but ultimately stinging portrait of the emotional costs of projects like the aforementioned that are often buried (pun highly intended) under more positive statistics and the vast difference between what one calls home and housing.

In keeping with the theme of ‘before’ and ‘after,’ Last Harvest is also neatly divided into two parts: the days leading up to the relocation and the days/months following it. Admittedly, in retrospect, the first part at the Xus’ family home surrounded by the land that they farm has a prelapsarian quality. At his father’s tomb (which is on higher ground and will therefore not be impacted), Mr. Xu states rather plainly that he does not want to leave because they have everything here. By ‘everything,’ he means not only their home and land but also having nearby their adult children, who do not have to relocate.

With their sense of place still intact – though now with an expiry date – the Xus and Wang have an affectionate naturalness with each other in this first part, which contributes to its prelapsarian quality. The Xus and Wang have their respective tasks to fulfill and they do so according to the rhythms of farm life. In the midst of their daily activities that now include the task of moving, the three have conversations that reveal an ease with Wang and her camera’s presence in their lives, she freely posing questions as they go about their days and they responding, posing their own questions, or initiating conversations themselves. Here Wang also does not explicitly go into the politics or logistics of the factors that are forcing the relocation, preferring instead to focus on the beauty/calm of the landscape that will disappear while intermittently invoking the emotional and practical losses through the Xus’ packing. (Though it is not always harmonious, mind you, for at one point Mrs. Xu lashes out at her husband for not doing enough to progress with the move.) In this way, too, the film moulds itself according to the space in which it takes place. At the Xus, more often than not one spends more time outdoors, or better yet, outdoors and indoors have a seamless relationship, given the open-air expansiveness that is part of their home and life.

The haste of the relocation that marks the second part is unexpected, for the Xus and the film. A series of short cuts that follows a bus with the Xus and other displaced villagers make the abruptness of the move even more unsettling, culminating in a drastic change in landscape that constitutes the Nanhepian Resettlement Compound in Tainmen, Hubei Province. And as suddenly for the Xus as well as the spectator, life is suddenly different.

The film, finding itself in a different space, moulding itself accordingly. While conversations and rapport continue between the Xus and Wang in the compound as freely as they occur in their village, the space and the things that one sees there undeniably affect their tenor. The increasing disconnect that develops between the home and the compound is what marks this second part; not in terms of which is better, but which is more effective and productive (and for whom).

Helping to spell out this disconnect are carefully chosen shots of banners that express support for the relocatees while at the same time promoting furniture companies. Hanging along the road that leads to the compound, such exclamatory maxims gain a sadly ironic meaning in the wake of the abruptness of the Xus’ relocation. Another shot of a banner, this time for a mobile plan hanging on one side of the compound, becomes even more sadly and comically ironic when the next shot is of Mr. Xu complaining about an overdue phone bill when they have never had a landline before or know how to use the device (‘I won’t touch it,’ says Mrs. Xu). Less ironic and more direct is a shot that captures the Xus in the background working and an off-screen conversation between anonymous relocatees about the government’s ‘unfair’ handling of the relocatees and relocation in the (aural) foreground. But most direct of all is Mr. Xu, who speaks frankly of the promised monetary compensation and job upon resettling, neither of which he (among others) has received.

Serendipitously or otherwise, it is Mr. Xu who ultimately makes the distinction between home and housing in and for the film. If at his village home he remarks that they ‘have everything,’ at the compound he points out that you ‘have to buy everything.’