The title, “The Iron Ministry,” makes this sound like this could be documentary about the political organization that runs the railroad but it is actually about what kind of sights you can see on a train in mainland China and the kind of people you can meet.
The actual translation of the title in Japanese and Chinese is “Railroad” or literally “Iron Road.”
Have you been on a train lately? When I was living in Pasadena, I used to take the Gold Line to Union Station and then read a book or look at the coastal view on the Surfrider to San Diego. I’d read a book on the way down and another on the way back up. It was a pleasant journey. Likewise, I’ve taken a short jaunt from Chicago to Urbana. I’ve just come back recently from Japan where I’ve ridden on the bullet train.
Things are different between my experiences in the U.S. and Japan, but nothing like some of the things I was on this documentary. The rhythm of the churning metal is the same and, sometimes the sudden blurred flashes of scenery could be anywhere in the world. People traveling to visit a festival or to another city for a better life, that’s universal, too. Yet in Japan and the U.S., I’ve never seen someone carrying on great pots of raw meat. On the train, the slabs of meat aren’t carefully stored away and kept out of sight. The fat is trimmed and then neatly folded up.
In other cases, people board the train carrying great baskets of vegetables suspended on either end of a long thick pole. Most of the baskets are filled with vegetables. Some of the cars are so crowded, people are sitting and eating in the aisles. This isn’t how all the train cars are. In first class, there are white table clothes and people sitting across from one another for a meal.
There are short interviews in Chinese and we learn that some people are traveling to find better job opportunities or to visit a festival. At 82 minutes, the documentary still feels a little long and director Joel Potrykus could have edited this down a bit. Potrykus traveled the rails for three years collecting footage. This is not a travelogue and it’s not critical social commentary.
The documentary received a Harrell Award at the Camden International Film Festival. The documentary was also shown at the AFI Film Festival 2014. In Chinese with English subtitles.