Last Train Home doucments that every year, 130 million workers return from China’s industrial cities to their homes in the countryside. This temporary shift in population, which the film calls the largest human migration in the world, is one of those numbers that seem impossible to comprehend. Director Lixin Fan chose to focus the Zhangs, factory workers who left their country village 16 years ago when their children were infants. Their absence was in the hope they’d make enough money to support their children through their education, something the parents are desperate to provide to give them a better quality of life. Last Train Home won the Best Feature-Length Documentary award at the 22nd International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and was nominated for a similar award at Sundance. It was shown at the March-April New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center and MoMA in New York.
This movie is also good for those who never visit China, as most of the time, the media tend to show the good stories, not the truth. The factories are not demonized in this film, in fact, it shows us how dependent the people are on it. If a factory closes down, it’s workers are devastated. So many work there so they can scrap together enough money to help their families in the country. To witness the estrangement and disconnect within the family is heart- wrenching. The camera captures expressions and scenes of humanity that speak volumes of the lifelong ordeal of China’s migrant workers. The story is about the Zhang’s attempt to leave the city to journey to their countryside home while having to fight the inhuman crush of workers who crowd into Guangdong’s dirty railway station to secure tickets. In a rebellious frame of mind, Qin decides to leave school and go to work in a factory just like her parents, thinking that that is the path to freedom.
The skill of Lixin Fan is remarkable as he captures their experiences and this is a very moving film. There was one scene which I found particularly memorable where the father, a largely silent and disillusioned man, strikes his daughter repeatedly because he feels she does not appreciate what he and his wife have done for her. There are no heroes or villains in this documentary. The situation represents a microcosm of a huge societal change, and the end results are unpredictable. This documentary goes above and beyond giving the simple facts; it’s like a good piece of literature that shows the very tragic human costs of those who have and those who have not in a rapidly developing society that’s in conflict with itself.
Last Train Home” has some gorgeously composed shots – but he also has something that can’t be taught: The patience and understanding to allow a family to tell their heartbreaking story in their own way. I liked this film so much that I can only strongly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in film at all. Very good editing and photography and a heart-felt narrative. The lack of political and historical context weakens the overall product. The film builds on the work of the documentary China Blue which examines the experience of Chinese migrants working in a blue jean factory. Other than that, this is a superbly crafted film that you need to watch. It shows that while the Chinese economy booms because of this immense export capability, family life and social cohesion suffer. Fantastic film.