“Last Train Home” is a film that aches. Watching it is akin to experiencing the push and pull of a circulatory system. The heart pumps and initiates a flow. A family is reunited for one brief moment before the call of utility interferes. It will be a year before the flow returns them to each other. In the meantime, the memory of the heart colours every day spent in separation. It becomes the purpose, the reason for a painful life of stoic acceptance. Until the year is up, there appears no room in the lives of the family for happiness, only the determination that for the next generation, the flow will stop.
There are over 130 million migrant workers in China, we are told. They move from impoverished rural areas of the country to city centres, where work in factories allows for a living to be made. “China is a manufacturer,” one man observes. Boxes marked “Made in China” are stacked in alleyways, crammed with folded jeans, ready for export to the American market. Two young women browse for clothing in a department store and are unable to find the brand of jeans they stitch together on the shelves. Across the world, we’re wearing them as though they appear out of nowhere, as though “China” were as intangible as Venus.
Yesterday marked International Workers’ Day, on which workers and unions took to the streets to demonstrate for workplace rights and the advancements made by labour unions for over 100 years. Violence at these events, such as the firebombing of police in Greece, are anarchist reactions to a strangling. The sight of thousands upon thousands of migrant workers attempting to cram a train that will return them home to see their families for Chinese New Year invites the impression that violence will erupt at any moment, but the crowds are astoundingly calm in such a claustrophobic environment. A young girl laughs at the sight. “You have not yet tasted the bitterness of life,” her mother instructs.
Director Lixin Fan’s film is about that bitterness that forces millions of Chinese into accepting their circumstances. Mother Sugin and father Changhua, penniless, moved to find work nearly 20 years ago to support their new family. Sugin is weary-eyed, concerned, becoming unable to stay awake through night shifts. Changhua is quiet, pensive, continually fighting back an emotional outburst. Theirs is a life of grimy subservience. Their focus is their children, who are being looked after by their grandmother and may have a chance at a better life if only they do well in school. With a population of over 1.3 billion, the competition in China is astronomically fierce. The report card of son Yang becomes like a religious text, a prophecy of success decades down the road. Placing fifth in a class is unacceptable.
Seventeen-year-old daughter Qin wants freedom, and against her parents’ wishes, drops out of school to become a factory worker for the money it provides. When the family reunites again at the next Chinese New Year, the unbearable squeeze of the train journey home has forced tensions to the boiling point. As Qin rebels and her father reacts violently, she addresses the camera directly, screaming, “You want to film the real me? This is the real me!” It’s an explosion of the order of things, the purest kind of family drama, in which the next generation wants nothing to do with the constraint and resignation of the former. Later, Qin will be clearing away bottles in her job at a night club while a young girl dances in the flashing lights beside her. We are irrevocably born as ourselves.
“Last Train Home” is set in the two years approaching the Beijing Olympics. A sense hangs in the air that China wants to prove itself worthy of its economic model. Fan fills his film with contrasting views of the spirit-cleansing Chinese countryside and the heartless weight of the congested inner-city industrial zones, which turn barren during the onset of the worldwide financial crisis. There is poetry in the film’s efforts to capture what lies at the root of the human condition. Many scenes are set at dinner tables in front of bowls of food, indicating the bond established through the act of eating shared by all life on the planet. “Taste the bitterness first,” Yang and Qin’s grandmother offers, “then the sweetness will follow.”
The annual journey for these workers represents the largest human migration in the world, and Fan’s film functions impressively as a nature documentary. He maintains a shocking discipline and steadiness among such chaos, turning every point of discomfort and heartbreak into something universal. An early shot slowly pans from a vacant parking lot to an area where thousands clog a station. We are here, and there is order that keeps us from being elsewhere. Later, as the crowd swarms through an opened barrier, a young woman breaks from the pack, sits down and weeps. Realizing she has no time to waste, she adjusts her pack and makes her way back into the herd with tears on her face, disappearing among the millions who are trying to make their way home.
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