For generations, Wang Ying’s family farmed the misty mountains of Liangshan, one of China’s poorest regions. But now, the 14-year-old girl lives without her parents—she is the main caretaker of her two younger siblings. They are among an estimated 9 million “left-behind children” living alone or in the care of relatives in the Chinese countryside.
Max Duncan’s quietly poignant short documentary Down from the Mountains tells the story of a family torn apart by the forces of China’s rapid modernization. When not at school, Wang Ying cares for her siblings, tends to the farm and struggles to do her homework, while her parents live a thousand miles away, working 11-hour days at a headphone factory for around $15 USD per day. In the film, Wang Ying’s parents admit to feeling ashamed of their situation and are often worried about the safety and well-being of their children. But, as they explain, “we know the cost of being illiterate too well. So long as the children don’t give up, we must support them through school.”
“I understand,” Wang Ying says in the film. “They do this to make money so we can study.” But bearing the burden of responsibility has evidently taken a psychological toll on the young girl, who throughout the film longs for her parents and struggles with the pressure of childrearing. Her maternal grandmother, who lives a 40-minute walk away, sometimes helps with the farming, but she has small grandchildren to tend to and no space for three more. “I think a family being together is more important than anything,” Wang Ying continues. “But if I told them that, I don’t think they’d listen to me.”
In an article for ChinaFile, where Down for the Mountains was originally published, Duncan describes the “cruel irony” of Wang Ying’s family’s situation, writing that “experts increasingly feel that the absence of parents could harm a child’s economic potential even more than the deeper poverty they would endure on a lower family income.”
Duncan told The Atlantic that a major storytelling challenge presented itself in conveying the relationship between the family members. “When her mother returned, Wang Ying was clearly conflicted,” he said. “She was happy to see her, but clearly also resented her for having left her in charge. Culturally, these are not people who necessarily express their feelings to each other openly and verbally, and so it was a case of waiting patiently for the small signs that tell things unsaid.”
“In the end, it is not a film with high drama or a resolved ending,” Duncan continued. “But in that sense, it reflects the complexity of their lives going forward.”