Last Train Home; a movie review.

I watched Last Train Home last night, a feature length documentary by Lixin Fan that was produced by Eye Steel Film.

I had received positive feedback about the film and was interested in its subject matter; that of the vast migration that takes place in China for the new year’s festivities. The film states that there are 130 000 000 migrant workers in China. For many of them, the new year offers one of the few periods of off time they will receive during the work year. Given its cultural and historical importance, the new year is also a time that is traditionally spent with one’s family. It is hard to fathom the logistics behind getting over 100 million people to travel in order to be with their families during a week. The result is chaotic to say the least, and the film explores this yearly event through the eyes of a family whose two parents work in factories far away from home.

The film follows this family over a period of over 2 years, primarily during the new year, as they cope with the pressures of the traveling, but more importantly of the emotional tension that results from the familial situation that has developed as a result of the parents working away from home and their kids in order to support them and offer them a better future.

This struggle for survival, of hope, of sacrifice does not play to our expectations. The situation is complex and strained. It becomes clear that Lixin Fan does not want to portray a superficial portrait of the circumstances. Instead, he chooses to explore broader issues such as alienation, expectations, parenting, youth, freedom and oppression through the eyes of the family.

The two children live in rural China with their grandmother. The parents who are working far away have almost always lived away from home, and the those who actually brought up the kids were their grandparents. The relationship between the kids and their parents is strained and empty. At every encounter, the parents are shown expressing their desire that the kids study hard in order to get good grades. Reacting their youngest child’s report card, in which he finished 5th in his class, the parents tell him to work harder. 5th is not satisfactory. The repeated expression of the need to study is suffocating, and it is clear that both children are already well aware of the importance of school. The older daughter, the most interesting character in the film, is frustrated at this constant pressure, and feels disgust at the superficiality of her relationship with her parents. She rebels, leaves school to work in a factory, and expresses the pleasure she feels in making her own living and being free. This freedom is certainly not the same as that which we have come to understand in North America. The work seems laborious and unending, the living conditions cramped and sterile, and the cultural stimulation hardly existent. Her parents are dismayed by what has happened and wonder what could have gone wrong.

During the following year, the 2 parents and their daughter make the trip back to their family and their emotions climax in what is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in a very long time. The accumulated tension explodes and feelings are revealed in aggressive fashion. Life continues, and slowly, each party comes to grip with their life, and they continue dreaming of a better future.

The film juxtaposes the work and hope of an older generation with that of a new one, with more freedoms, more hope and a more naive understanding of the struggle their parents have lived in order to offer them a better life. The difference in perceptions is fascinating and opens a window for a better understanding of how China is changing and growing. After they return to work, the daughter begins her own path, and her choices reflect new realities in China. She heads to Shenzhen, an important economic capital less than an hour from Hong Kong. It is a city that has grown from 70 000 inhabitant 30 years ago to over 10 000 000 today… She finds works as a waitress in a club and we are left to wonder what will become of her. The club is like any other in North America; with drinking, dancing, sexuality and consumerism. This life is foreign to her parent’s generation.

The film is poetically filmed, slow and thoughtful, allowing for a variety of interpretations. No judgment is made of its protagonists, or of the Chinese state. What we offered is a glimpse of the struggle that this family, among millions more, goes through navigating the complex economic, social, and cultural roads that make up contemporary Chinese society.

I was touched and deeply moved throughout the film. Highly recommended.

http://www.eyesteelfilm.com/lasttrainhome

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