Last Train Home
2010, NR, 87 min. Directed by Lixin Fan.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 29, 2010
This small masterpiece of documentary filmmaking offers a human-scale look at the impact of China’s industrial growth. First-time director Fan, a Chinese-Canadian, focuses his camera on one family over a period of several years, and could not have known in advance what the Zhang family’s outcome would be. Rural peasants by birth, married couple Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin made the decision 17 years ago to leave their children behind with their grandmother and seek work far away in the city factories to earn money to send home for the support of their children so that their offspring might have a better life than that of their parents. Changhua and Suqin are just two of the 130 million migrant workers in the cities who make the long journey home but once a year (during the week of Chinese New Year) to visit their families. As revealed in the film’s preamble, this custom represents the largest human migration in the world. And it’s a sight to behold. The annual exodus from the railroad station in the city of Guangzhou is better characterized as a stampede, a swarm of humanity, carrying a year’s worth of worldly acquisitions, rushing the train platforms for a place in the packed, standing-room-only rail cars. These staggering images are returned to again and again, and reveal that Changhua and Suqin are but specks within this national story. Back home after the arduous journey by rail, sea, and bus, they reunite with their young son Yang and teenage daughter Qin. Although they bring desired gifts and reassert their wishes for their children to study hard so that they may have more options open to them in their adulthood, Qin is a rebellious teenager who is weary of school and subsistence farming. She resents her parents, who, she feels, abandoned her when she was an infant and care more about acquiring money than raising their children. The film’s dramatic crisis occurs once 17-year-old Qin leaves school to work in the city and be on her own, much to the devastation of her parents. The only thing the uneducated, unskilled Changhua and Suqin feel they can accomplish in this world is to make a better life for their children, and now they realize that circumstances have made that impossible. Theirs is a story with a million echoes. And if this sounds as though it’s a situation happening on the other side of the world, think again. This is a story about the economic fallout of globalization. Look no further than those boxes of garments stamped “Made in China” that we see in the corners of Changhua and Suqin’s sewing factory. The shirts on our backs here in the U.S. are connected to the Zhang family’s prospects for the future.