If you think your holiday travel is tough, ponder what husband and wife Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin endure to get home for Chinese New Year. Director Lixin Fan’s cameras capture teeming thousands jammed against barricades outside a train station, floods of people carrying suitcases streaming through corridors, and hundreds cramming themselves and their bags into every inch of sweaty, overcrowded passenger cars for what is often only the first leg of a journey of hundreds of miles. It is an annual rite for the tens of millions of Chinese who work in urban factories far from home to support their families. The lopsided cycle of exile and return fuels the drama behind the documentary Last Train Home.
Changhua and Suqin have a teenaged girl named Qin and a pre-pubescent boy named Yang, but they see them only during their few days’ holiday visit to their rural village where the children live with their grandmother. Although Changhua and Suqin spend 51 weeks a year sewing dresses and jeans and living on nearly nothing so that the kids will get a good education and a chance for a better life, their near-complete absence perhaps contributes to Qin abandoning school to head off to the city for a factory job. As Qin tries to find her way in the new China of fashion and nightclubs, Changhua and Suqin face alienation from their offspring, their own aging, and the shifting currents of a rapidly modernizing economy.
There are parts of Last Train Home that play like an attempt at neo-realist drama cast with amateur actors, as Changhua and Suqin have awkward discussions about their conflicted, difficult lives while studiously not looking at the camera. When Suqin matter-of-factly acknowledges that they “don’t even know what to say” to their children when they do come home, or when a face-off between a rebellious Qin and undermined paternal figure Changhua explodes into violence, the film can’t be mistaken for anything but the bleakest of real life. But the intimate family story Fan captures is all but eclipsed by Last Train Home’s portrait of contemporary China itself. The scale on which the country’s manufacturing base works and the lengths that its people are willing to go to make their own personal version of the Chinese dream come true are humbling, as is a random factory worker scoffing about the 40-inch-waist jeans he gets paid to sew for fat, lazy Americans.
Last Train Home
Dir. Lixin Fan; feat. Suqin Chen, Changhua Zhan, Qin Zhang, Yang Zhang (PG)
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