Every year, hundreds of millions of migrant workers in China travel from the urban areas where they work to their homes in the rural countryside for Chinese New Year. The colossal scale of this annual exodus is immediately established by first-time director Lixin Fan in his documentary, Last Train Home— first with an aerial shot of the epic crowd amassed outside a Chinese train station and then with scenes of anxious travelers stampeding their way to the platform. In addition to the unpredictable weather, the train system is simply not designed to handle such an enormous flood of passengers. No train system is. The chaos is unbearably stressful and overwhelming.
There is no easy way to tell the story of 130 million migrant workers. Fan smartly narrows down his focus to one family. They are only one in a million and this one family does not represent all the issues that are faced by their cohort, but this sensible decision allows Fan to develop a manageable narrative arc. Fan and his cameraman, Shaoguang Sun Sun, follow the couple, Changhua Zhang and Suqin Chen, who both work day and night as seamstresses in a factory in Guangzhou, a city hundreds of miles away from their village in Sichuan, where their teen daughter, Qin, and preteen son, Yang, live on a farm under the care of Zhang’s elderly mother. Though the film’s title points to the yearly human-migrating phenomenon, Fan spends a lot of time revealing the lives of these workers and their family off the train because it is essential for the viewers to see the reality of the film’s subjects in order to understand the emotional gravity of the choices they make.
By definition, China’s migrant workers are peasants from the country’s many rural provinces who left home to faraway industrial towns in hopes to alleviate their families from poverty. There are plenty of low-wage jobs for these undereducated workers at garment or electronics manufacturers since China is the world’s number one exporter. There is no better portrait of how the unrelenting tide of global trade has profoundly stirred up drama in a rural Chinese family. For Zhang and Chen, their pay is low but it still gives them a better life than farming. But a better life also comes with a price. Since their children were infants, the couple have only been able to see them once a year during the Chinese New Year holiday and there is a growing rift between them and the 16-year-old Qin, who feels little bond with her parents after being raised by her grandparents most of her life. Mother and Father want Qin and her little brother to do well in school so the kids do not repeat the cruel cycle of a nomadic worker, but Qin feels ready to breakaway from her parents and find her own way in the city.
Last Train Home stands out from the majority of documentaries with its excellent cinematography, which has sadly become a second thought for a lot of recent documentaries that are obsessively occupied with dishing out information or pushing ideological agendas. In the post-Inconvenient-Truth world, Last Train Home is refreshingly cinematic, reminding viewers the differences between a documentary film and a television news report. Fan makes good use of his establishing shots without using any patronizing voiceovers. He also has a keen eye for framing, and some of his interior panning shots are ostensibly influenced by Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, whose brand of fictionalized reality has received international acclaim. While filming the disorderly crowd waiting for their trains, Fan and his crew handle the handheld camera swiftly in the face of utter chaos, capturing the people’s downright desperation for their only chance of the year to reunite with their loved ones during the most important of all Chinese holidays. China has grown to be the world’s second biggest economy, but the sight of the sheer mass of migrant workers speaks volumes to the disparity of wealth.
After serving as producer/ sound recordist for Up the Yangzte (a documentary about the effects of China’s Three Gorges Dam) and editor for To Live is Better Than To Die (a documentary about China’s AIDS population), Fan displays the sure-handedness of a promising documentary filmmaker with his discreet approach to the film’s subjects. Last Train Home spends most of its 85 minutes following the Zhang family in action and their conversations between each other. Fan’s occasional in-the-moment interview offers a candid perspective from his subjects. During the film’s emotionally charged conflict between parent and child, Qin turns to the crew, looks directly at the camera and yells, “You want to film the real me? This is the real me!” This jolting moment disquietingly points out how the filmmakers have immersed into the most private moments of their subjects, and how the documentary process, regardless of one’s ethical standards, inevitably changes the lives of its participants.
Last Train Home will be playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on 4/8 & 4/9 and is available on DVD.