The price migrant worker Su pays for being alive during China’s rapid urbanisation is a heavy one. Thirty years ago, he left his wife for another woman, Qin, and together they set off finding a new life together as itinerants. But the pace of change has proved too much for the unskilled Su – to the extent that he has resorted to unscrupulous peddling to eke out a living. No longer a young man, the only option seems to be to return to the family home in the countryside, but with girlfriend Qin in tow.
“At first I thought the story was going to be about the street and the many people who live there,” explains director Zhiqi Pan, who first encountered Su working in a makeshift street market beside Hangzhou’s eponymous 24th Street — much of which was still under construction. “When I got close to these people, I started to bring into the film their home towns and then their family relationships. I found it more interesting to bring these new layers of stories into the film.”
Su is no angel. He is a wheeler-dealer who concocts questionable contracts, shows a distinctly misogynistic streak in his relationships with his girlfriend, wife and daughters, and seeks to manipulate the director to be portrayed in the best possible light. In the middle of a vicious argument with his daughter about his 30-year absence from her life, he instructs Pan to stop shooting — an injunction the director thankfully refuses to obey. What’s more, the reasons for his return to the marital home seem spurious and governed by financial self-interest, rather than any regard for the family he left behind three decades previously.
Yet despite his roguishness and feckless approach to responsibility, Su has a certain degree of charm, and we can be both moved and amused by his idiosyncrasies — not least when he decides to take a bath in a plastic tub outside a block of corporate offices, using a fire hydrant as a faucet. “This is his way of survival, so a lot of the complexities in his personality actually reflect the hardships of people like him surviving in a place like China,” says Pan.
In the background we always see girlfriend Qin, generally silent and stoic in the face of the tough life she endures with Su. “She is a person who is not very expressive, but in the relationship between the two she plays a very important role,” comments Pan. “Her existence explains why Su left his home town in the first place. Destiny made their paths cross. Su didn’t like his wife. Qin was mistreated by her husband. For them to meet each other at that time [meant] they could migrate and fight for work together.”