Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping may or may not have actually said “to get rich is glorious,” but his country acted as if he did, pushing China to the first rank of global financial players. The Chinese economic miracle, however, came at a wrenching human cost, one that is beautifully explored in an exceptional documentary called “Last Train Home.”
Directed by Chinese-born Lixin Fan, “Last Train” takes its name and its overall framework from Chinese migrant workers who toil for most of the year at factories far from their home villages. They return, often by train, to see their children and parents only for the Chinese New Year.
It’s not a few people who return. Some 130 million annually turn that trek into what the film calls the world’s largest human migration. It certainly looks that way in eye-widening shots of unimaginable hordes of people overrunning police barricades and flooding impossibly overcrowded trains.
This boggling phenomenon, however, is only the backdrop against which the story of one particular family, the Zhangs, plays out. Both paradigmatic and personal, it is in one sense a particularly Chinese story, but in another it couldn’t be more universal.
For at its emotional core, “Last Train Home” is a story of parents and children, of mothers and fathers who make unimaginable sacrifices to ensure a good life for children who have ideas of their own and couldn’t care less about their parents’ dreams for them. Sound familiar? You bet.
Director Fan, who served as his own cinematographer, has an excellent eye for small details and the beauty of landscape, but what makes his film special is the potent bond he formed with the Zhang family during the off-and-on three years spent filming. An expert, unobtrusive observer, Fan disappears inside his own film and allows us to get completely inside his subjects’ lives.
The Zhangs are typical of millions of Chinese who were lured out of rural villages with the promise of higher wages in urban factories. What the film doesn’t tell us specifically but is implicit is that they are prevented by law from having their children go to schools in the city where they work, making life-changing separations inevitable.
The Zhangs, father Changhua and mother Chen Suqin, are introduced working intently at their sewing machines, making jeans for the export market in the enormous commercial city of Guangzhou.
Though the Zhangs are clearly good people and caring parents, they have for the past 16 years left their daughter Qin to be raised by her grandmother in a village more than a thousand miles away, seeing her but once a year.
That separation was horrific for the parents — Chen Suqin cried whenever she got a letter from home — but they felt that it was the only way to ensure a better life for their children. , So the Zhangs, especially Chen Suqin, are always after Qin and her younger brother, Yang, to work hard at school and get good grades.
It takes only one look at 17-year-old Qin, her face displaying the classic sullen look familiar to parents everywhere, to guess that this arrangement has not been working, and in fact it hasn’t.
Far from being grateful for her parents’ sacrifices, Qin resents her mother and father for in effect abandoning her. She’s not happy having to do deadening subsistence farm work in addition to being in school. She is bored being in class when so many of her friends have, like her parents, fled to the big city for the lure of jobs that they don’t really see can be seductive dead ends.
Although it’s clear that a family conflict is brewing, how it plays out in terms of fearsome confrontations and confounding of parental expectations is remarkably honest, painful and involving. When Qin’s grandmother says, apropos of eating a melon, “taste the bitterness first, the sweetness will follow,” we can only hope that sweetness will follow for her family as well.