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Last Train Home
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by Jay Seaver

"I'm never complaining about the two hour trip to visit my family again."
5 stars

"Last Train Home" starts by presenting the audience with large numbers - the 130 million Chinese workers who return home for the New Year's holiday annually (the world's largest human migration), and the 2100 kilometers that separate the Zhang family during the rest of the year. Once it has hit the audience with those, it narrows the focus considerably - to how this pattern affects that one family, who prove an interesting and sometimes disquieting sample of the population at large.

Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin work in a factory located in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, mostly sewing jeans for export to the west. They've been doing this for a decade and a half, ever since their daughter Zhang Qin was about a year old, working long hours to support Qin and her brother Yang, who live back in Sichuan Province, tending the farm with their elderly grandmother. The annual trip home means everything to them, despite the expensive and hard-to-obtain tickets for a trek that is a logistical nightmare for time that is all too short. And when you only get to see your children for a few days once a year, those days are seldom all you hope they will be.

Last Train Home opens in 2006 and follows the Zhangs through the better part of three years, covering two migrations and, some economic ups and downs, the Beijing Olympics, and some very contentious family reunions. It is, initially, a bit of a surprise to see the movie extend so far along that axis as opposed to another - the images presented to the audience emphasize breadth as opposed to duration: When we're introduced to the Zhangs at their workplace, we don't initially realize that the film is about them - we see many workers, and they are not identified on-screen individually (I don't believe father Changhua's name is ever spoken, at least not with subtitles, although he does call his wife "Su" at one point). Similarly, though we are given some information about how far the Zhangs are from home, Fan doesn't go out of his way to make us feel the length of the trip, at least on the first iteration.

What he does manage is to insinuate himself into the Zhangs' lives to a quite remarkable extent. There's a moment of confrontation near the end that will surely make some jaws in the audience drop; it's angry and hurtful and it more or less shatters the fourth wall. It is, however, just the latest of a number of shots that boast surprisingly complete access. While it seems likely that Fan didn't have complete access to the factories, and what we see does not immediately look like intolerable conditions, it is also decidedly not a showplace facility, and any number of shots can serve as a reminder of why we have unions. Still, perhaps a more remarkable - and crucial - scene comes early, as Qin speaks quite frankly about her feelings toward her parents while burning offerings to her late grandfather; at least as edited, it seems to be very early for her to trust Fan and company that much.

That scene is where Fan starts to really show the personal toll such a life takes. Qin lays it out pretty clearly: She feels very little attachment to her parents; they didn't raise her like her grandparents did and their annual visits and phone calls are full of guilt trips and pressure. Fan strings this and other bits together to tell a story that is both universal - kids don't understand parents' sacrifices/parents have forgotten what it's like to be a teenager - and rather particular to China.

As intimate as the film is, it also makes good use of the world around the Zhangs. Though I imagine the 35mm print playing other engagements looks better, the difference between the Sichuan countryside and the polluted cities is still striking, and while Fan doesn't forcefully push the length of the Zhangs' journey, the switches between multiple modes of transportation (and some nice scenery) help to communicate their hometown's remoteness. The scene of the massive throngs waiting days for trains out of town after the power for most of a province is knocked out is certainly awe-inspiring in a "holiday travel from hell" way.

And, true to form, that sequence also has plenty of telling moments between family members. And for all the implicit and explicit commentary "Last Train Home" makes about China's economy (as a manufacturer for Western companies and in general), perhaps the most damning thing it can say is that it destroys the very family structure.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20081&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/15/10 14:50:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2010 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival For more in the 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/19/11 Magic A humane documentary, depicting the plight of Chinese rural folk in the city. 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  03-Sep-2010 (NR)
  DVD: 22-Feb-2011

UK
  N/A

Australia
  03-Sep-2010


Directed by
  Lixin Fan

Written by
  (documentary)

Cast
  (documentary)



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