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Flicks - Last Train Home
Last Train Home 10/11/04 2:29
Flicks - Last Train Home
A documentary about a single Chinese family portrays the plight of millions of migrant workers who must leave their children in order to make a decent living. The tremendous changes occurring in China over the past few decades have inspired a new wave of Chinese cinema, both in fiction and documentary. An excellent example of the latter is Last Train Home, from Chinese-Canadian first-time director Lixin Fan. Taking three years to shoot and involving unusual access to a single Chinese peasant family, the picture explores the plight of hundreds of millions of migrant workers who live in crowded cities, laboring in factories that produce so much of the goods consumed in the West. They only make one annual trip home to their rural villages, during the Chinese New Year, an event that strains the transit system as huge numbers of travelers struggle to get tickets and find a place on the incredibly overcrowded trains. Lixin films these mind-boggling scenes with a careful objectivity that brings the reality home in a way that a more dramatic rendering might have missed.
A married couple, the Zhangs, work in Guangzhou as sewers in a clothing factory. In order to boost their children out of rural poverty, they went to work there a long time ago, sending money to their kids in the countryside, who are being taken care of by their grandparents 1200 miles away. The only times they get to spend with their children are during the New Years break. The father is quiet and reflective, the mother a constant worrier who obsesses about creating the opportunity for the kids to have a better life. While cameras observe them at work, another film team follows the kids in the country, particularly the teenage daughter Qin. In an observational narrative covering two different annual visits, we learn of Qin's smoldering resentment at her parent's absence, and her hatred of school. A painful drama of familial struggle ensues.
In the background, unexpressed because of censorship, but evident to the viewer, is the injustice of the economic system that causes unimaginable stress for millions of families like the Zhangs. As always in such intimate documentaries, we wonder how much the cameras influence behavior, but the glimpse we get of life for the workers is stunning. The visual contrast between the beautiful countryside, which unfortunately you can't really prosper in, and the grimy polluted cities that have become manufacturers for the world, is another of the film's highlights. Last Train Home conveys something of the experience of living in China to a greater degree than I've seen before.