Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, NR)

Adolescence is never easy but such behavior is particularly heartbreaking to Qin’s parents, who feel that they have sacrificed their own chance at happiness for the sake of their children.

Here in America we’re used to happy immigration stories, the kind where the children of peasants, after a brief adjustment to life in the land of opportunity, go on to found movie studios, make their fortunes on Wall Street or win Nobel prizes. They honor their parents’ sacrifices and pass the benefits of American life on to their children and their children’s children in one long Panglossian tale.
Of course it doesn’t always work out that way, not in America or anywhere else. The documentary Last Train Home, directed by Lixin Fan (a producer for 2007’s excellent Up the Yangtze) offers a look at a less happy story: that of internal migrants in China. According to a title card at the beginning of Last Train Home, the world’s largest human migration takes place annually during the lunar New Year in China, when 130 million workers temporarily leave their workplaces in industrial cities to visit their families in the countryside.
Last Train Home focuses on one family in this human sea. Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin are garment workers in Guangzhou whose children Qin and Yang are being raised by their grandmother in a lushly green but economically impoverished village in Sichuan. The parents live a Spartan life, spending long hours hunched over sewing machines and living in crowded communal quarters to earn the money that will give their children a better life. That’s what the parents believe, anyway. Most of their conversations with the kids seems to involve exhortations to study hard, expressing a blind faith in the merit system that ranks somewhere between touching and appalling, as it betrays their lack of real understanding about how the world works.
The kids, particularly 15-year-old Qin, have a different feeling about life. She’s hitting the rebellious teenage years and feels abandoned and betrayed by her parents; if they truly love her, why have they barely been a presence in her life since the day she was born? Instead of showing proper Confucian respect, she regards them as something close to clueless strangers who show up once a year to nag at her before disappearing again.
Adolescence is never easy but such behavior is particularly heartbreaking to Qin’s parents, who feel that they have sacrificed their own chance at happiness for the sake of their children. Their absence in Sichuan, they believe, is proof of their love and what they expect in return is, at a minimum, respect and hard work from the younger generation. What they don’t realize is that their children have a different set of values, formed by capitalism and the expectation of a better life now, not in some yet-to-be determined future that may never arrive.
Last Train Home follows the family over three years, documenting the mounting tension between the generations that leaves the parents wondering if they have not only failed to gain the whole world but might also be losing their children’s souls. The film is open-ended: we are left with the feeling that no one knows the effect of this kind of large-scale family dislocation.
Last Train Home finds a kind of desperate poetry in the hardships of the annual trip home, a multi-stage voyage that requires ordinary working Chinese people to endure hardships unthinkable to most Americans. First, obtaining tickets can be a multi-day struggle because there aren’t enough trains to handle the New Year’s rush (the only vacation time granted to these factory workers, which means they’re all trying to travel at once). Then, the service itself is subject to frequent breakdowns, with little information available to the travelers who may be left waiting outdoors in the weather for hours with the army called in to preserve order. Once the train finally does arrive getting on is a free-for-all with no guarantee of either a seat or baggage space for ticket-holders—instead people cram themselves and their possessions into every available space.
It’s amazing that it works at all, and yet somehow it does. There are more internal migrant workers in China than the total population of all but nine other countries yet, until this film, I was barely aware of this amazing social and economic situation. It’s a story that needs to be told and Last Train Home is the perfect vehicle to tell it. | Sarah Boslaugh

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