Last Train Home
Vacation: Once a year. Train ticket: 250 Yuen. Window Seat: Priceless.

Theatrical Release Date: 10/08/2010
Director: Lixin Fan
Rated: Not Rated by MPAA
Runtime: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Golden Mug2010 Golden Mug

Best Documentary

Best Editing (Lixin Fan & Mary Stephen)


All aboard!

Living in California, the plight of migrant workers and their families is not a new concept. While politicians and law enforcement try to figure out how to handle illegal immigration into the states and the status of workers and their relatives, a plethora of human dramas are unfolding every day.

As myopic as Americans can be sometimes, it’s fascinating to see the same issues play out in other corners of the world. With her documentary, “Last Train Home”, director Lixin Fan isn’t just showcasing the 130 million migrant workers in China that make a mass migration to see their families annually on Chinese New Year; she follows one specific family over the course of nearly two years to see what impact this lifestyle has on them.

The family in question are the Zhangs – Changhua, Suqin, their children Qin and Zang, and the grandmother who has been raising the kids since Mom and Dad left to seek work. That work comes in the textile industry far, far away and it takes days to come home via bus, train, ferry and another bus; just getting tickets for the train can sometimes take days as millions of other workers are trying to make similar journeys.

This long distance relationship between the parents and their children creates heartbreaking rifts within the family and just watching an hour and a half of their struggles is mentally exhausting. Clearly, as a fortunate member of a society with numerous economic and social safeguards (their quality being a completely different debate), it’s hard to truly fathom the pressures that families like the Zhangs must endure.

However, Fan’s documentary does a remarkable job of doing just that, giving the audience a first-hand glimpse into this family’s life. In a smart and unexpected move, Fan does not narrate the film or offer up opinions aside from what happens throughout the course of editing down two years of footage, taken from the winter of 2006, through the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and into the global economic collapse. The cameras simply follow the family as they go about their lives and we are like the ghosts of Christmas present, spectators who can only use this newfound information to decide if any of our own decisions are in need of change.

I won’t get into what happens in the film, it would read like a book report. Suffice to say, it’s not easy at all to maintain a healthy family dynamic when the kids only see Mom and Dad once a year. They celebrate their time together, lament their time apart, and fight about their expected paths and roles all along the way. There is one scene especially, as the teenage daughter fights with her father that will be particularly challenging to parents in the audience – as the subject of being respectful and obedient while also gaining independence is a common experience; though I hope most conflicts of this kind are not nearly as physical as this one.

As we learn about the Zhangs, we are also exposed to the sheer chaos that results in so many people all trying to leave the cities in order to return home each year. It’s a frightening mob scene each time the train stations pack people in like cattle, made even worse one year when a snowstorm disrupts the power grid and delays rail service for days, as desperate passengers are forced to wait and hope their transportation arrives in time to get them home and back. I would imagine that claustrophobia would be one of the worst afflictions to have in situations like these.

While there are normally only a couple of truly worthy contenders for documentary of the year, this has been one of the stronger years in recent memory for both quality and quantity. Fan and her team have delivered a remarkable look at one family, whose story is both unique and universal; earning “Last Train Home” a 4.5 out of 5. Anyone looking to gain further insight into the human condition, or the sacrifices parents often make in order to give their children a chance for something better should make every effort to see this film.

4.5 out of 5