Er Dong (China, 2008)

Fatherless urban youth growing up in China’s seismic 20th century economic transformation is a common theme for many Sixth-Generation directors who started making films in the 90s. Beijing Bastards (1993) and Beijing Bicycle (2001), by Beijing Film Academy-trained Zhang Yuan and Wang Xiaoshuai respectively, are just two examples.

In the 2008 independent film Er Dong, Shanxi director Yang Jin picks up this theme where earlier filmmakers left off. But he adds a new twist by focusing on a teen trapped in his rural environment in the early 2000s, a time when Chinese villages underwent momentous urbanization no less dramatic or painful than the urban transition in the 90s. With the help of docudrama techniques made famous by Jia Zhangke, Yang creates a detail-rich, quietly moving portrait of a doomed youth left behind in a Chinese village. Through the story, Yang highlights how many rural folks relied on Christianity and house church congregations for emotional support during China’s economic reform. This was a time when many villages were left desolate by the mass exodus of migrant workers to cities for better opportunities.  

Er Dong is a restless 18-year-old living in a small Shanxi village with his widowed mother. Growing up, he has a nagging feeling he doesn’t belong, that perhaps he is not his mother’s real son but rather the product of some cash transaction. He keeps getting into trouble, messing about with a shotgun, riding motorcycles, getting into fights, so his devoutly Christian mother leaves him at a Christian boarding school hoping he will find God and some direction. Instead, Er Dong meets a girl there named Chang’e, gets expelled and elopes with her on his motorbike with dreams of a new life.

Er Dong is not particularly in love with Chang’e. After all, he’s still a child in some ways. But having been abandoned by his birth parents, God and society, he has nothing else to claim as his own. Chang’e, who becomes pregnant, is another lonely soul with whom he hopes to create something close to a “home.”

Yang aptly captures the rebelliousness and recklessness of a misguided country youth running wild in the absence of a male role model. At the boarding school, Er Dong meets a vocational teacher willing to teach skills needed to become a repairman, perhaps the only father figure in his life. But the struggling teen, unable to appreciate the opportunity this represents, instead skips classes and gets expelled. After becoming a father, he is forced to grow up quickly, taking backbreaking jobs at a brick factory and coal mine. Lying ahead of him is an exhausting cycle of temp jobs, hard labor, poverty and little hope. In this way, Yang sheds light on a rarely discussed social problem—the poor prospects for undereducated rural youth reaching adulthood in 21st century China.

Chang’e and Er Dong are characters closely based on Yang’s uneducated cousin and her then boyfriend. They were sent to a free Christian school to study the bible and music with the idea of becoming village missionaries, but fell in love, eloped and eventually got married. The film is set around 2002 when the school still took teenagers as apprentices, a practice later halted when they realized how rebellious many of the deprived youngsters tended to be.

Yang said in an interview that one of the things he hoped to highlight is how difficult rural life can be for “left-behind” youngsters. “Society is changing rapidly around them and a lot of their peers with means have left the village for better job opportunities, leaving behind older folks and younger ones with less abilities or resources,” he said. “Without a marketable skill, many feel trapped.

Some face an impossible dilemma—they don’t want to work in the fields but don’t know what else to do,” Yang added. 

Yang’s look at the strong rural reliance on Christianity for many left behind without family support is particularly interesting. Many come together weekly at jiating house churches—often illegal—for comfort, prayers and encouragement. This outlet was cut short for many after early 2019, when Chinese authorities began an intense crackdown, concerned over Christianity’s growing popularity.

In the film, people of different ages, especially those getting on in years, thank and consult with God on important decisions in everyday life, including setting a wedding date. It is striking that some of the choir scenes captured by Yang strongly evoke youngsters singing Maoist revolutionary songs during the Cultural Revolution for strength and inspiration. Many have now traded Mao’s portrait for crucifix imagery.

Er Dong was inspired by Yang’s genuine concern for the wellbeing of rural left-behind youth, victims of massive migration and monumental economic and political change during the 90s and the 2000s. Er Dong revives the “fatherless urban youth” theme made famous by Zhang Yuan and Wang Xiaoshuai but focuses his camera squarely on rural life, offering a new and updated take on this important corner of China.

Karen Ma is a US-based independent film scholar and movie critic specializing in Chinese cinema. Director Yang Jin is one of seven filmmakers featured in her new book, China’s Millennial Digital Generation: Conversations with Balinghou (post 1980s) Indie Filmmakers. 

Er Dong is part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films. It can currently be rented from Vimeo On Demand.