By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 17, 2010
"Last Train Home" tells the story, movingly and without narration, of the world's largest human migration, which takes place once a year during the Chinese New Year's holiday. That's when 130 million Chinese migrant workers, many of whom have come from rural villages to work in urban factories, return home to visit the families they left behind.
How to tell such a huge story? By focusing on a single family.
In director Lixin Fan's methodical but crafty documentary, it's factory worker Changhua Zhang and his wife, Suqin Chen. In the early 1990s, they left their impoverished farming community -- and their year-old daughter, Qin, in the care of her grandmother -- to find work in the big city. As the film opens, we see them slaving away in a clothing factory in Guangzhou, China's third-largest city, living in seedy, dorm-like housing and preparing to go home to see Qin, now a teenager, and her younger brother, Yang. The trip of more than 1,300 miles -- in their case, by train, boat and bus -- is hot, crowded, expensive and time-consuming. But they do it, because home isn't where you live but where the people you love are.
Qin, however, doesn't get along with her mother. And over the course of three New Year's visits (from winter 2006 to 2008), we watch as the teenage girl drops out of school to follow in her parents' footsteps, first taking a job in a jeans factory and then in a nightclub.
There's drama, misunderstanding and heartbreaking. Changhua and Suqin want their daughter to stay in school. It's the only chance, they believe, for a better life. But Qin has come to think that her parents' absence means they don't care about her as much as they care about money, even though the reason they work away from home is so they can support their family. It's heartbreaking stuff.
But Chinese-Canadian director Fan is interested in a bigger story. Bigger even than the 130 million who, like Changhua and his wife, make the annual trip.
What the film really gets at is why so many Chinese jobs have shifted to low-paying factory work. In large part, it's because of the Western -- i.e. North American -- appetite for inexpensive consumer goods, many of which comes from China. "Have you ever seen a Chinese with a 40-inch waistline?" asks one of Qin's co-workers in the jeans plant. And the film opens with shots of cardboard shipping boxes marked "Made in China," destined, presumably, for our discount stores.
It's depressing enough to watch this family's struggles with life. But their pain really hits home when you think that the pants you might be wearing could have contributed to it.
Contains obscenity and a family argument that briefly becomes physical. In Mandarin with English subtitles.