Director: Lixin Fan
Man, whenever you get to thinking that your life is rough, just watch a documentary about life in China. Lixin Fan's Last Train Home centers on a family of migrant workers struggling both to make enough money to keep the family afloat and, ultimately, to keep the family together as generational conflict threatens to tear it apart. It is a thought provoking film and very well made, but damn is it ever depressing as hell.
The film focuses on Yang and Changhua Zhang, two of the 130 million migrant workers who travel back to their home village only once per year during the New Year's holiday. The two work in a garment factory and live in an apartment approximately the size of a shoebox. They work hard in the hope that their children, who live far away in their home village with Yang's mother, can have an easier, happier life, so that they can go to school and become educated rather than enter into a life of endless toil. Both are well aware that once someone starts down this road, there is no escape; education is the only way out.
As can easily be imagined, the family's circumstances have complicated the relationship between the parents and their children. The Zhang's daughter, Qin, is particularly hostile and resentful regarding her parents' absence from her life, insisting that they're little more than strangers to her. To her parents' dismay she eventually abandons life in the village and the educational opportunities that her parents have worked so hard for, in order to pursue her independence in the city. Her decision devastates her mother, who feels as if the sacrifice that she made by choosing to go to work has been for naught.
Fan filmed the family over a series of years and a series of New Year's holiday visits. The tension between the members of the family mount perceptively with each encounter and late in the film things explode when Qin swears at her father and he responds physically. It's a difficult scene to watch, especially when Qin turns to the camera and screams that now we know how she, and the family, really are. By the end of the film we learn that she's barely in contact with her family, calling at New Year's but opting not to make the journey to visit.
Fan is able to give Last Train Home both an intimate and a more universal feel. It focuses on this one family specifically, but makes it clear that their story is far from unusual. The film opens and closes with shots of the massive crowds waiting to get on trains to make the holiday journey and the sheer number of people is absolutely staggering. Though the film rarely comments directly on the political situation (and, when people within the film do directly comment on it, it's usually in the context of comparing how hard they work and how little they have to show for it with how they perceive the average American to live), the entire film is an examination of the human cost of China's rise as an economic superpower. It's a very powerful piece of work and certainly worth of the wealth of praise it has received.