Zeitgeist Films // 2009 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // February 9th, 2011
Made in China.
Without making judgments or taking sides, the documentary Last Train Home is a devastating portrait of the widening generational gap among the rural Chinese populace. The film's visual scope is an eye-opener as it shows what the peasant class will endure to make a better life for their families. The filmmakers' access to candid moments with the Zhang family gradually reveals a tragic truth about what is being sacrificed.
Every year, over 130 million people participate in "the world's largest human migration." This occurs when China's migrant workers leave the industrial city centers of the nation to return to their home villages for Chinese New Year's holiday. Most of them will wait for days at a station in hopes of squeezing into a packed train car with their bundles of personal belongings. Two people among this vast crowd are Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin. They are making the annual journey from Guangzhou, where they work in a textile factory, to their village in Sichuan more than 700 miles away. A grandmother is raising their two children. Qin, the eldest daughter, knows her parents only as voices over the phone and the virtual strangers who come during the annual holiday to nag her. Can she appreciate that her parents have practically given up their adult lives so she can finish school and rise out of poverty?
Lixin Fan (an associate producer on Up the Yangtze) spent several years with the Zhang family in the making of this film. He certainly gained their trust over that time as the camera manages to observe their lives in a very unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall manner. The presence of the film crew seems to be nothing at all to the film's subjects. Yet, the camera work is always at the heart of the action rather than at the side lines or catching up to its subjects. The documentary is shot and edited so well that it almost feels like a staged fiction film. So too, the footage in the crowded train stations manages to convey both a distanced big picture depiction of the activity as well as a sense of the ground-level tension and frustration. It's remarkable how the camera always captures the important moments from the appropriate angles and the film crew manages also to stick with their subjects, somehow finding their way onto these overcrowded trains, amid the chaos.
Observing the relationship of this fractured family is an extraordinarily candid view into their lives. Individually they reveal parts of themselves to the camera that they can't articulate to one another. Qin explains her view of her parents -- they only think about money -- which is flawed but we can hardly blame her since she has hardly seen them while growing up. Seeing the conditions of the textile factory and the dormitory where Changhua and Suqin live and work, it's hard to imagine enduring these conditions for more than a few days let along 15 years. Yet, that is what the couple have resigned themselves to in the hope that it will mean a better life for their children. It is tragic, then, when Qin drops out of school to take a factory job in the city. She sees it as a means to independence and an escape from the life her parents would force upon her.
Qin's decision to turn her back on her family is a heartbreaker but she isn't entirely to blame. How can she fully appreciate the sacrifice of two people she hardly knows? How can Changhua and Suqin be effective parents when they see their kids but a few days each year? Last Train Home doesn't point fingers and doesn't have any answers but it certainly shows how the Chinese tradition of filial piety is eroding. The grandmother recalls a moment from her youth when she wanted to leave the village for city life. Instead, she gave up school because her community asked her to stay to help in the agricultural work. That kind of personal sacrifice would be unheard of today. The story of the Zhang family must represent so many more millions of peasant families struggling to find their place in the new economy of their country. The rural family, comprised of the simple-minded hard-work ethic of the older generation and the narrow-minded selfishness of the younger, is in crisis as a cost of China's efforts to become an economic superpower.
Zeitgeist Films does a good job presenting the film on DVD. The video footage is slightly grainy throughout, a bit more during nighttime scenes, but in all respects very professional looking. Color reproduction is strong, appearing very natural in daylight footage and slightly boosted in a few darker scenes. As mentioned above, the camera work is expertly done. The stereo audio serves the visuals just fine with strong dialogue presence from location recording. There is sparse use of music, a sad piano tune that also sounds good.
There are a handful of extra scenes included as the disc's bonus content. Deleted scenes (11:00) from around the train station include interviews with other migrant workers suffering the long wait for transportation. A collection of clips in the "Travelogue" (5:30) shows the long train ride and various New Year's celebrations in the village. The U.S. theatrical trailer is also included. On a separate three-panel printed insert is a Q & A with the director talking about the genesis of the film and his thoughts on how the plight of migrant workers could be improved.
Last Train Home is a little tough to watch at times and especially so at one point when the tension within the family erupts into violence. The frustration and anxiety while waiting at the train station is also palpable enough to cause unease while sitting on your couch. The documentary sheds more light on the struggles of the peasant class, perhaps more than most viewers care to contemplate the next time they shop for brand name jeans. Nevertheless, it's an exceptional film about the people on whose backs the global economy is built.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Bonus Footage