A Family Torn Asunder Takes The 'Last Train Home'

Zhang Qin

hide captionAll The Livelong Day: Zhang Qin, one of the principal subjects of Last Train Home, rides the railroad — just like her parents, factory workers who can afford to take the train to see their children only once a year.

Zeitgeist Films

Last Train Home

  • Director: Lixin Fan
  • Genre: Foreign, Documentary
  • Running Time: 87 minutes
Not rated

With: Zhang Changua, Chen Suquin, Zhang Qin, Zhang Yang, Tang Tingsui

In Mandarin and Sichuan dialect with English subtitles

(Recommended)

A sea of colorful umbrellas surges towards a train station at the beginning of Last Train Home, Lixin Fan's heartbreaking documentary about Chinese migrant workers. The stunning beauty of this opening panorama disguises the ugliness beneath: Each year in February, 130 million of these laborers return en masse to their rural villages for the Chinese New Year, often enduring days in overcrowded, stinking railway carriages and barely maintained buses.

Using this mass exodus as his starting point, the 29-year-old director (now based in Montreal) narrows his focus to a single family that will become emblematic of the shattering human cost of economic progress. Sixteen years earlier, husband and wife Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin left their impoverished village in Sichuan province for garment-factory jobs in Guangzhou city. Now their 17-year-old daughter, Qin, and her younger brother, Yang, cared for by their aging grandmother, barely recognize the parents they see only once a year. "When we're home we don't even know what to say to the kids," sighs their father, while their mother talks of little but grades and report cards, seeing education as her children's only salvation.

"All they care about is money," says Qin, who seems the more damaged by her parents' absence. Smarting with resentment and desperate for her own life, she drops out of school and into a factory job, her rebellion symptomatic of the damage being sustained by China's traditionally close-knit families. Treated like foreigners in their own country, migrant workers require permits to work outside their province, are excluded from health care, and their children are forbidden to attend city schools. So for starving rural families, staying together and staying alive is rarely an option.

Zhang Qin, Zhang Yang i i

hide captionSunrise, Sunset: Zhang Qin and her brother, Zhang Yang, must depend on each other — their grandmother is getting elderly, and their parents can't afford to leave their far-away jobs in garment factories.

Zeitgeist Films
Zhang Qin, Zhang Yang

Sunrise, Sunset: Zhang Qin and her brother, Zhang Yang, must depend on each other — their grandmother is getting elderly, and their parents can't afford to leave their far-away jobs in garment factories.

Zeitgeist Films

Following the Zhangs from 2006 through the financial downturn and factory closures of 2008, the director, a former journalist for Chinese television, keeps himself in the background and uses no narration. Images and brief onscreen notes guide the story, with idyllic rural scenes contrasting with smoking factories and swarming city streets. But the film's intimacies — Chen Suqin washing her feet in a cramped workers' dormitory; Qin visiting the grave of her beloved grandfather — are never thematically limiting: The personal is always making space for the political. Whether it's a train passenger loudly denouncing China's worldwide manufacturing role while having no brands of its own, or workers laughing hysterically as they sew enormous jeans ("Have you ever seen a Chinese with a 40-inch waistline?"), the film's small moments repeatedly reveal the wider picture.

Frequently moving and quietly enlightening, Last Train Home is about love and exploitation, sacrifice and endurance. It's also an object lesson in the ethical tension that undergirds the documentary process, when two situations become dangerously volatile. One is during a terrifying stampede for tickets at the train station, when the Zhangs are separated; the other is a rapidly escalating fight between Qin and her father. As he begins to beat her, she screams foul language then suddenly, shockingly, turns to the camera. "You want to film the real me? This is the real me!" Unsure whether to intervene (the director was not in the room at the time), the cameraman freezes in stunned confusion. For those few seconds, the line between film and subject dissolves and Qin's fury is our own. (Recommended)

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