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Over the last 30 years, China has undergone the hugest modernization in history, going from essentially a third world country with a billion people, to having the second largest economy in the world. The statistics about China's growth are so staggering that it's easy to ignore how such a transformation has changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people. That change is the subject of a prize-winning new documentary "Last Train Home," which has begun rolling out in theaters across the U.S.

Our critic-at-large John Powers says that it is a superb portrait of individuals trying to figure out their place in a nation that's changing at lightening speed.

JOHN POWERS: Back in the 1980s, the culture critic Marshall Berman wrote a brilliant book called "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air." He argued that the great drama of modernity is the way that people go from being passive objects of modernization - mere tools of history - to subjects who struggle to define their own relationship to a world in which everything is changing.

Never has such change happened on a greater scale than in modern China. The different ways individuals deal with this is the subject of "Last Train Home," a gorgeous new documentary by Lixin Fan, a Chinese filmmaker based in Montreal. Shot over three years, "Last Train Home" deals with an amazing social fact, every single Chinese New Year 130 million migrant workers leave the cities and return home to their rural villages. The movie puts a human face on this migration by showing its affects on a single family.

Suqin and her husband Chunghua, originally come from a remote village in Sichuan province, but for the last 17 years they've been living in the mega-city of Guangzhou where they sleep in barracks, slave away in a garment factory, and give their savings to their family back home. When we first meet them, they're about to make the two-day trip home to their village to see their two children, their sullen 17-year-old daughter, Qin, and her younger brother Yang, who by law aren't allowed to live with them in the city. Suqin and Chunghua are stoked, and we anticipate a happy reunion.

But when they arrive, dispensing toys and cell phones, we discover that things are not as we expected. Suqin and Chunghua see themselves as doing what it takes to brighten their kids' future, and they're upset that Yang's class rank has dropped from number three to number five. In contrast, their children view them as bossy absentees who care more about making money than looking after them, and things only go downhill from there.

Not that "Last Train Home" is grim or doleful. Fan shot the movie himself, and his images are absolutely ravishing. And he's put the story together with the help of Mary Stephen, an editor best known for her work with Eric Rohmer, who has a novelistic eye for detail. Together they've achieved that rarest of beasts - a documentary that's lively as well as deep, that's heartbreaking yet doesn't wallow in depression.

Structured around three annual journeys home, the movie tells a story at once epic and intimate. The epic side comes out in the second year, when Suqin and Chunghua spend days caught in a train station queue so vast and devouring that you almost long for the calm of a soccer mob. These crowds remind us that the family we're watching is only one of tens of millions like it. You see, modernity is roaring along like a runaway train in China. In fact, things are happening so fast that, from one generation to next, people have wildly different ways of being modern.

Eager to escape the millennial drudgery of subsistence farming, Suqin and Chunghua embrace the new economic freedoms. They move to the city to give themselves, and their family, a better life, and they feel that they have. But because they were raised in the austere values of a Maoist peasantry, they do all this in the spirit of stoic self-sacrifice. It's impossible not to be touched by both their self-denial and by their sadness that their children don't seem be honoring their part of the bargain.

But their kids were born into a later, hyper-capitalist China, and we don't really blame them for having their own ideas of how to be modern. They don't want to be A students like their parents expect, don't want to spend their lives sacrificing themselves in the name of the future. Qin in particular, can't wait to abandon school, get out of the boondocks and move to the city where, surrounded by high-rises and neon and the intoxicating whir of the now, a girl can have some fun.

Although we fear that Qin will be a lamb to the slaughter, "Last Train Home" is no morality tale. Fan realizes that he's chronicling a transformation so vast that there are no easy conclusions about how people should live. He knows that once the genie of modernity has been let out of the bottle, individuals are left to ride the whirlwind of history. They have to make it all up as they go along.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "Last Train Home." You can see clips from it on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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