Last Train Home
A transfixing journey
A miniature masterpiece of documentary observation, Fan Lixin’s “Last Train Home’’ examines the costs of China’s “economic miracle’’ on one family. Or what used to be one family: By the time this quietly heartbreaking saga of displacement and generational change has glided to a close, the foundational building blocks of father-mother-sister-brother have disintegrated into every man for himself.
It’s already under siege when “Last Train Home’’ opens, in 2006. Zhang Changhua and his wife, Chen Suqin, are all-too-typical Chinese migrant workers who labor together in a garment sweatshop in the city of Guangzhou while their two teenage children, Qin and Yang, are raised by a grandmother in their farming village 1,300 miles away. Chen left her daughter behind before the girl’s first birthday; they see each other once a year, when the couple journeys — along with the country’s 130 million other workers — to their home for the Chinese New Year.
That annual trip stands as the largest human migration on the planet, and Fan’s cameras capture the chaos and sheer mind-blowing magnitude of the exodus. Yet a more seismic shift awaits the couple when they get home. To their children, Zhang and Chen are guilt-tripping strangers who turn up annually, urging them to study hard but never connecting with them on an individual level.
Qin has had enough of it, and “Last Train Home’’ is transfixing in its portrayal of a teenage girl acting out a rebellion we associate more with Western adolescents. Her parents despair when she drops out of school and journeys to the industrialized wasteland of Xintang City, sewing clothes, living in an overcrowded dorm, and venturing out at nights to go dancing and get her hair done. “My parents barely raised me, so how can there be any feelings?’’ she scoffs. “All they care about is money.’’
That this isn’t true is obvious, yet Zhang and Chen can’t find the words to tell her so; their silent grief at times touches the tragedy of “Tokyo Story,’’ the 1953 classic about another Asian family drifting apart. What the parents can’t comprehend, and what Fan’s unobtrusive camera captures, is that their daughter represents an entirely new Chinese generation: restless, craving consumer goods and self-fulfillment, profoundly scornful of the old ways. “Last Train Home’’ implies it’s the “economic miracle’’ itself — the system that sends millions from home in search of work — that’s driving a stake through this family.
The movie peaks in two startling scenes that subtly comment on each other. In one, the annual trip back to the village becomes a mass ordeal when a power outage hits the railroad and tens of thousands of workers are strand ed for up to five days at Guangzhou Station. It’s very nearly a humanitarian disaster, but while Zhang and his wife docilely wait for the trains to arrive, Qin stubbornly pushes ahead through the crowd. When they finally reach home, the tension snaps: The daughter cusses out her parents, gets a slap in return, then turns to Fan’s camera in despair.
“You want to film me?’’ she cries out. “This is the real me! What else do you want?’’ She’s speaking to everyone: her parents, the filmmakers, the architects of China’s economy, the far-off Americans who buy the clothes she makes without ever thinking about who she is. What else do you want? The question echoes down every frame of this haunting film, and Fan doesn’t pretend to have an answer.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.