Lixin Fan, a young Chinese filmmaker now living in Montreal, has made an extraordinary documentary, one of those documentaries which feels like a scripted work of fiction, perhaps based on a true story, rather than a documentary about the changing way of life in China. Last Train Home is an incredibly powerful film providing a profound glimpse into a country which now manufactures most of our consumer goods.
More than 130 million migrant workers, living in China’s huge cities and working in factories that probably manufactured half (or all) of the clothes you are wearing at this moment, travel back to their rural homes every year for Chinese new year. For most of these workers, it is the only time of the year in which they will see their families.
Made in 2009 (released in 2010), Last Train Home tells the story of one of these families over a three-year period and shows the impact of this increasingly-common lifestyle on families and on the future of life in China. Changhua and Suqin left for the city when their oldest child, Qin, was only one year old. They left to raise the money required to provide schooling for their children, so that their children would have a chance at greater success in life. But the children, growing up under the care of grandparents, are neither grateful nor impressed. Their parents are basically strangers who nag them about their school accomplishments once a year.
Qin, now in high school, sees school as a cage and wants freedom. She thinks going out one her own and working in a factory like her parents will provide that freedom, but she quickly runs into a reality check.
I’ll leave the story there. You can already tell that this is not a typical documentary, where I would not be worried about giving away too much of the plot.
Last Train Home is in every way a brilliant documentary, with superb cinematography, perfect editing and a haunting look at life in China today, life that we in the ‘north’ contribute to every time we go shopping for something other than groceries. Based on this film, most Chinese view their gorgeous countryside as a place of poverty and their ugly cities as the land of opportunity. But watching the factory workers hunched over their sewing machines and sleeping in dormitories does not make you think that life in China is headed in the right direction.
I have heard much about how we in North America are falling behind China economically because the Chinese work and study ethic is so much stronger. Last Train Home reveals that Chinese children, no doubt influenced by American TV, may not be prepared to continue down that road. But what will happen then?
As you will have guessed from the first word of my review, Last Train Home gets an easy ****. This is a must-see documentary. My mug is up.