Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Film Review - Last Train Home

Writer/director: Lixin Fan
Documentary, 90 minutes

Some thirty years after China’s “Reforms and Opening up” to the outside world, its coastal cities are overrun with factories ready to supply the West’s insatiable need for cheap goods. Because of crushing poverty in the interior rural areas, over 130 million people have flooded to these cities for the work, however low-paying and grueling. They end up living in the factories, and can only return home once a year to celebrate the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival with their families. But with millions all trying to take the same trains home at the same time, the result is a crush of pandemonium.

Last Train Home is a remarkable look at the effects of globalization on China in general and on one family in particular, and resonates on many levels both large and small. It is both epic and intimate. It takes us through many cities and regions, often contrasting the beautiful, pristine but impoverished countryside with the smog-choked yet affluent urban centres. Crowds pack the factories and stream into trains by the thousands and thousands. But it is through the eyes of the Zhangs that we see how difficult the work and journey home can be, and how they arrive home only to find that their children are strangers to them.

After taking the time to develop the rapport and gain their trust, Montreal-based Lixin Fan spent three years with the Zhangs chronicling their story. They became quite close, which allowed Fan to film them even at their most personal. “To me personally, I think I have to open up myself to them first in order to get their trust, so that they would be comfortable to open up their life – and more importantly their heart – to me and my crew. After a year, we’d talk like family. They know everything about me, and I know pretty much everything about them. So by doing this, the crew was able to capture those very intimate moments – even in their bedroom.”

It is heartbreaking to watch as the family slowly disintegrates. The parents toil long and hard in Guangzhou and only want what’s best for their two children, or so they believe. They push them to achieve the success through education that eluded them. But the children back home at the farm in Sichuan are resentful and alienated from them. The daughter Qin in particular struggles with the parents and rebels. The situation ultimately reaches a dramatic breaking point.

The family’s breakdown is mirrored by the financial crisis which hit towards the end of Fan’s shooting schedule. Millions of Chinese workers are now jobless as a result. And although TIME Magazine named Ben Bernanke as the Person of the Year, as a runner-up the magazine chose The Chinese Worker, which Fan points out “says quite a lot about their importance, not only to China but also to the world economy.” The film discreetly makes the connections between us in the West and the workers in China.  

Last Train Home leaves no doubt that many of the hardships of the Chinese workers are as a direct result of our individual and collective actions.  Lixin adds, "I wish my audience would think that their lives in the developed world are very closely tied with the lives of these migrant workers who struggle daily on the production line. The world is at a crucial moment with many challenges, and it’s time for every one of us to rethink how should we live our lives."

Look for my profile of director Lixin Fan in the latest issue 15.1 of Ricepaper Magazine. Last Train Home opens in this week in Toronto with a premiere on Wednesday, Feb 24 at Human Rights Watch Film Festival and a special screening in Richmond Hill to benefit Reel Asian Film Festival Friday, February 26.  It begins its theatrical run on Friday at the Varsity Cinema.

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