Three Minutes

The camera is obsessed with its own extravagance. Within mere seconds we are forced to confront its omnipresence: camera angles are too many to count. There is one in the train, one by the train, one on the platform above the waiting crowd, one airborne, one tracking the kid’s movement, even one under the train. Most of them are, quite literally, inhuman angles: one would have to physically climb onto the rails to achieve that shot. In real life, if the camera operator were to have done so, they would have been dead. In the film, doubly so: the dark, imposing outline of the train, carving out but a crack of the pale sky beyond, weighs heavily on everyone’s mind.

Camera transcends time. We are reminded of it immediately. The frames are sped up, slowed down, sometimes both of those, with only a few seconds apart. The film could not seem to decide which passenger to look at, so it moves around hastily, shakily, panning and zooming, so that emotions can be invoked—but barely, just enough. The fast-paced cuts and voiceover make it impossible to stay focused, betraying a kind of anxiety in storytelling. The film seems worried that we might feel bored, looking at ordinary lives of migrant workers, that the emotions might be cliche, even insincere.

But for a split second they do feel insincere. The migrant workers–refugees, diasporas, vagrants, outcasts–look so happy, and we know–having seen them with our naked eyes–that this is not entirely true. The sun shines on their faces almost an alien light, as if we were in the dreams of those workers, fast asleep in their Homeric voyage.

The film’s fascination with time is most visibly marked by the three-minute countdown—a theatrical constraint, no doubt, but we know we are watching reality. The story is, after all, based on a real story. Time, as represented by numbers: we are greeted with numbers in the first shot of the film, the little boy preparing his recital of the multiplication table. We do not yet know the purpose of the shot, but the tone is set: numbers will be the backdrop of this stage. We learn about the longest railroad, we see a huddled crowd on the platform, we hear the clock ticking, whistles blowing, the countless wheels of the giant train, and we think numbers, numbers, numbers.

The boy has to recite the multiplication table. How could he not? Primary school is but the first step in this big, wild world, but already he is forced to admit its cruelty. The mother might just be scaring him, but there is some truth to the scare: get the numbers right, or your entire life is ruined. The mother, similarly bound by her duty, shoves her family into margins, as she loads and unloads the train with eager passengers, the clock ticking like a time bomb in her mind—in ours as well.

The train, of course, has to leave. What is the train, this untamed beast? It carries the love and hopes of thousands of families, and yet is oblivious to them entirely. The train does not know. It marches forwards, the roaring engine like merciless waves clashing upon shores. It is big enough to be a country, the country that it blindly takes on its shoulders, with an engine made out of numbers–time, labor, capital. And we wanted it to stop. As we watch the doors slam shut we wanted so much for this gargantuan machine to stop dead in its tracks, and wait for its passengers–those left on the platform, those stranded by highways and railroads, those leaving their homes or having their homes demolished, those abandoned and forgotten in the history of progress, their pleads and wailings unheard.

It did not stop. Instead, the boy was able to finish reciting in time. We are left with an happy ending, then, our worries almost dissolved. A good story, it is. The machine that is this country stayed just long enough for things to work out. The warm and fuzzy feeling we have comes from a peculiar utopia, one that is meticulously engineered, professionally shot, and extravagantly edited. Trust the fairy tales, then–the invisible voice commands–everything is going to work out magically, just in time for Spring Festival.

February 20, 2018