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Hand-Wringing Migration

Last Train Home (2010)

Zeitgeist Films

"Last Train Home," a cinema vérité-style documentary by Chinese-Canadian director Fan Lixin, burrows so deeply into the lives of a select few migrant Chinese workers that it might take the viewer some minutes to readjust to their own familiar world after the credits roll. Set in southern and western China, "Last Train Home" follows Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin, who work in a clothing factory in Guangzhou, while their children live with their grandmother in Sichuan.

Mr. Zhang and Ms. Chen are just two out of 130 million migrant workers who eke out a living in the cities and send money back to their families in the countryside. If they can scrape together enough savings, they attempt to travel back to their hometowns for Chinese New Year (along with the rest of the country). The film calls it "the world's largest human migration." Mr. Fan deftly presents major issues such as overpopulation and urban poverty, but these matters hum under the surface of the beautifully woven-together narrative: an unsparing portrait of parents trying to survive, while simultaneously pushing their children to achieve bigger and better things.

While most Chinese parents put tremendous pressure on their children to succeed, the Zhang situation is complicated by the family's disjunction: Mr. Zhang and Ms. Chen left to seek work in a faraway city when their daughter, Zhang Qin, was only an infant — and what they view as sacrifice, the young Ms. Zhang views as total abandonment. Ms. Chen speaks matter-of-factly about the pain she felt upon leaving her daughter; Mr. Zhang spends most of the film looking choked up and unable to express himself.

While the film's main focus is the relationship between 16-year-old Ms. Zhang and her parents, Mr. Fan never narrows in too sharply on the storyline. Instead, he lets lingering images and short scenes speak for themselves; and the effect is tremendous. Ms. Zhang and her brother Zhang Yang gather corn with their grandmother. People wait in the rain for days to board a train home for the New Year. Factory workers assemble blouses and shirts destined for America's malls. In one scene, the sense of pride felt by many Chinese is conveyed by a fleeting, quiet moment of three waiters watching the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, their eyes filled with tears.

Finally, after defying her parents and leaving school, Ms. Zhang's transformation from country girl to street-smart factory worker is illustrated with a trip to the beauty salon. "All the foreigners look like this," the stylist tells Ms. Zhang as he curls her hair into thick ringlets, pop music blasting in the background. Her parents are heartbroken that she's left school despite all their hard work; she still feels betrayed by their choices and burdened by their sacrifices. The economical editing keeps the film moving, but the amount of pain is palpable and it runs deep.

In examining the life of the Zhao family, the struggle between the parent and the child becomes the struggle between China's past and China's future; and given Mr. Fan's naturalistic style, influenced by filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke, we absorb the messages almost unconsciously. There are moments of humor in the film, but even those moments have an edge. Sitting next to a pile of jeans, a factory worker laughs at the clothing they make for export to Western countries. "A 40-inch waist," he exclaims. "Have you ever seen a Chinese person with a 40-inch waist?" On a rare visit with his parents, Ms. Zhang's little brother Zhang Yang is lectured to by his mother:

"You have to study more," she implores. "You have to work hard."

"But I don't want to work hard," he says under his breath.

"What?" she asks.

"Nothing," he says, sullenly.

The film isn't perfect, although it comes pretty close. Plodding, sentimental piano music underscores certain scenes without any real purpose, and the incredible views of China's countryside are reduced to a grainy confluence of muddy greens and browns. This dulling of the landscape might have been intentional — after all, the film is not meant to be a National Geographic spread — but even the more dramatic sunsets and rice fields come out misleadingly weary-looking. Ultimately these missteps are rendered meaningless in the face of the measured storytelling and beautiful, instinctive cinematography.

At one point in the film, Ms. Chen holds the phone tensely as she talks to Ms. Zhang, asking if she'll join them on the 36-hour train ride back to Sichuan for Chinese New Year. The camera floats up to Mr. Zhang, as he hovers above his wife, motionless, waiting to hear his daughter's response. She says she will. From Ms. Zhang's tumultuous relationship with her parents and the ever-widening generational divide to the Western economic crisis's effect on Chinese factories and the migrant workers who make our clothing, the film is an exquisite, powerful reminder of how utterly, utterly connected we all are — whether we like it or not.


Opens on Sept.3 in Manhattan.

Directed by Lixin Fan; director of photography, Mr. Fan; edited by Mr. Fan and Mary Stephen; music by Olivier Alary; produced by Mila Aung-Thwin and Daniel Cross; released by Zeitgeist Films. In Mandarin, and Sichuan dialect, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. This film is not rated.


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