As Lixin Fan's remarkable documentary cuts back and forth between the children and the parents, it lays out their personal dilemmas alongside a broader cultural shift.
"When we are home, we won't even know what to say to the kids." As Chen Suqin imagines the holiday visit she and her husband Zhang Changhua will make in a few days, she's hardly happy. Some 16 years ago, the couple left Huilong Village, Sichuan Province to find work in the city. As they head home -- along with some 130 million other migrant workers during the Chinese New Year -- they ponder their decision so long ago. "We were very poor when we left," Suqin remembers. "My mother held our baby when I left. Qin was only one year old. I was crying when I left."
Both Changhua and Suqin face forward as she speaks, aboard a boat with the Yangtze River stretching before them. Their journey home is long (2100 kilometers), complicated (train, bus, and boat), and costly in a range of ways. Throughout Last Train Home, which starts at New York's IFC Center 3 September, the Zhangs confront bad options. Their work in a sewing factory in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, is disheartening and visibly dreary: the camera cuts from one bent-over form to another, occasionally closing on their eyes, unspeakably weary and sad. They've done this work to support their two children, they know, to send them to school and so ensure they have a "better life" than their parents. They couldn't have imagined the extent of their sacrifice when they first left, but now, they live it every day.
And now, they can't imagine the effects of their choice back home. In the village, working with their grandmother and on her farm, 17-year-old Qin is restless and angry. She feels abandoned by her mother, not supported at all. Her younger brother Yang is apparently less fretful: he obediently shows his report card to his parents when they visit, and silently bears his grandmother's repeated assertions that he make a study plan, organize his hours so he can get all his work done. Qin goes alone to visit their grandfather's grave. She burns incense and kneels in the dirt. "Grandpa," she says tearfully, "I am doing well. I just don’t want to see mom and dad. We don’t get along, you must know. I may not come to see you for a long time." The scene cuts to Qin with Yang, the camera close on their cheerless faces. When she insists that he continue to visit the grave while she's away, he barely nods. Qin has decided to do what her mother has done, to find work in a city. "This is a sad place," she tells her brother.
As Lixin Fan's remarkable documentary cuts back and forth between the children and the parents, it lays out their personal dilemmas alongside a broader cultural shift. Like Yung Chang's superb Up the Yangtze (which was produced by the same Canadian company, Eyesteelfilm, that produced Last Train Home, Last Train Home considers the devastating effects of economic conditions in China. The sheer scope of these effects is indicated in stunning wide images, crowds of thousands of travelers mill and push at the train station, carrying pink and blue umbrellas or huge, colorful plastic sacks of belongings as they head back to the countryside each New Year for their brief days off work. The film notes this is "the world's largest human migration," the annual repetition underscoring the essential heartache.
Among these throngs of travelers, the Zhangs provide the sort of intimacy typical of documentary subjects. Their stories are harrowing, their surroundings depressing, their desires palpable. As they have agreed to be filmed over three years, they have developed their own relationship with the camera (and presumably, Lixin's crew). This helps to form the film's intricate emotional fabric, as they glance at or avoid looking into the lens, or the frame pans slowly from one subject to another during a conversation. Observing Qin in her new job, sewing in Xintang City, the frame shows the utter grayness of the factory as well as the close quarters she keeps with co-workers. As the girls share beds and excursions to the mall (where Qin has her hair curled), the close camera keeps close, revealing but not pressing on her shifting from surprise to worry to determination. One girl suggests Qin is fortunate that her parents devoted their lives to supporting her. She scowls, "All they care about is money." She's taken that lesson to heart, or at least in a sense of angry rebellion. She's escaped from school and the countryside. "Life is good here," she says. "After all, freedom is happiness."
She feels decidedly un-free when Changhua arrives at her factory and suggests that for the New Year, she "come back home with us, maybe go to school." As he speaks, the camera pans in the tight space to focus on Qin's increasingly sullen profile. Back at grandma's home, the tensions erupt in an astonishing scene. Angry at her mother's tears and (repeated) promises to stay home to take care of her, resentful of her father's expectations, Qin declares, "I'll walk out of your fucking house." The word serves as a sudden focus her father leaps across the room to hit her and she hits him back.
Raw and frightening, the moment goes on. Suqin, Yang, and grandma all watch in horror, as does the camera: as the boom mic lurches into the frame a couple of times, emulating and no doubt enhancing the family's -- and your -- sense of distress. "You want to film the real me? This is the real me," Qin tells the camera. "What else do you want?" As her words suggest she's had conversations with the filmmakers during this process, the scene hangs in the air long after it's done.
For one thing, the shards of fallout shape the final scenes of Last Train Home, as family members go in different directions. But there are other costs too. You're left to contemplate Qin's new job serving drinks in a bar (where she is instructed, "The customer is always right") as well as her parents' return to their sewing machines. You're also thinking about what it means that this has been observed and recorded, creating layers of audiences, at the time and ever after. These effects remain unseen here.