Shot in China from 2006 to 2008, Last Train Home is a heartbreaking documentary. Director Lixin Fan’s intimate focus on a working class Chinese family slowly reveals the brutal nature of China’s sweatshop economy.
The film opens amid the teeming crowds at Ghangzhou train station as thousands of people swamp the ticket booths. During Chinese New Year, over 130 million migrant workers return home to their rural villages. This is a country caught between its rural past and industrial present.
Changhua and his wife Chen left their home in Huilong Village 16 years ago to work in Ghangzhou, an industrial hub 2,100 kilometers away. They work 14-hour shifts for $5 a day in a garment factory. The Zhangs visit their children once a year during Chinese New Year. Qin and Yang live in Huilong with their grandmother.
“In our village only the elderly stay home”, says Qin, now a strikingly pretty teenager. Qin and her younger brother attend school and work the farm, shucking corn and then carrying it on their backs. They could be living in a different century.
The Zhang’s grueling two-day journey from Ghangzhou to Huilong is made via train, then ferry, then bus. A fellow traveler offers an insight that serves as the basis of the film: “If a family cannot celebrate the New Year together, life would be pointless.”
“When we get home, we don’t know what to say to the kids,” Changhua admits. Chen browbeats Yang about his academic ranking. “You’re fifth in your class? Last year you were third!” There’s a distinct strain in the relationship between the absent parents and their children.
Fan has an uncanny ability to capture small moments on film that convey larger truths. Qin is emotionally frozen while sitting next to her parents at the New Year’s feast. A few scenes later, she weeps while visiting her grandfather’s grave.
Fan follows the Zhang family over the next two years, highlighted by their annual New Year reunions. According to Fan, “Migrant workers have contributed the most to China’s prosperity, but benefit the least.”
Last Train Home makes frequent use of close-ups, and the hope and anguish of this struggling family suggests a growing sense of tragedy. When Qin reaches 16, she drops out of school and leaves home to work in the Ghangzhou sweatshops. The next time the family gathers for the holiday, all the buried tensions come spilling out.
Chen: “I’ll quit my job and take care of Yang.”
Qin: “Don’t worry, brother. She won’t stay home for you.”
What follows is a shocking confrontation between Qin and her father, a conflict that’s been festering for years. It’s rare for a documentary to have such a dramatic arc, with a volatile mix of thwarted dreams that’s worthy of Tennessee Williams. Qin’s rage is fueled by her sense of abandonment over two decades. Her father’s brutality is born out of a desperate sense of powerlessness. Changhua’s life has been stolen and his daughter has followed him into the sweatshop.
This isn’t the China that the propaganda ministers in Beijing tirelessly promote. This isn’t what their corporate partners in America want people to see. Yet Fan doesn’t flinch from this personal tragedy, this disintegration of a family.
The film closes with a one-two punch: the gaudy spectacle of China’s 2008 Summer Olympics, followed by the autumn of reckoning, the world financial crash. The sweatshop where Qin works is shut down.
The last time we see Qin, she’s moved to Shenzhen. Estranged from her family, she’s now on her own. Clad in a miniskirt, she’s no longer the farm girl introduced at the beginning of the film. At the end of her last interview, Qin turns away from the camera and walks down a dark and lonely street. Fan’s deft touch is powerful and suggestive. The young and beautiful Qin may be forced into a more dangerous profession than the sweatshop.
By telling the story of the Zhangs, Last Train Home reveals the fate of 130 million people, the migrant workers of China who provide the cheap labor for America’s consumer culture. The goods are cheap because the human costs are so high, intolerably high, as Fan reveals though his merciless camera A truth-teller who debunks national myths, Fan will undoubtedly be as hated in China as Michael Moore is in America.
The extras on the DVD includes a travelogue of the Zhangs’ route home as well as deleted scenes. Most of the additional footage consists of interviews with other migrant workers. These hardworking people are unflappable in their optimism, even as they carry all their belongings on their back. Their hopes and dreams ride on a fragile promise, a wistful belief that their children, at least, will have a better life.