By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Last Train Home,” the fascinating new documentary film by Lixin Fan, begins with a long, slow panoramic shot of thousands of people waiting for trains.
The people shown make up only a small portion of the 130 million mainland Chinese migrant workers returning from their factories to observe Spring Festival and Chinese New Year in their hometowns. After the New Year, they all ride back to work. It is the largest regularly occurring human migration on Earth.
Such a sweeping vision could easily become impersonal due to the numbers. But Fan, making his debut as a feature film director, decided to concentrate on one family, the Zhangs. The mother and father work in a factory, and their family members back home live in their home village.
This decision to pick a single family out of the hundreds of millions might seem counter-intuitive, but it succeeds brilliantly. We learn about the perils and strains of Chinese factory life. And on a deeper human level, we connect with the emotional cross-generational struggles of the Zhangs.
Changhua Zhang and his wife, Suqin Chen, come from a small rural village in China’s Sichuan province. They spend most of their time thousands of kilometers from home, at a factory in the city of Guangzhou. Their two children, a boy and a girl, stay in the village and go to school. An elderly grandmother looks after them.
Fan’s cameras go everywhere in the Zhang’s lives. In fact, the story of how the director got unlimited access to the family might make a film that is just as fascinating as “Last Train Home” itself. The couple works long hours at their sewing machines. They sleep in bunk beds during their short off-hours.
Fan bought the Zhangs small wireless microphones and instructed them to leave them on at all times. The mother and father address the camera directly at times, but this comes interspersed with casual conversations they have during their workdays.
Mostly, they worry about their children. Their daughter, Qin Zhang, is a teenager now. Like many teens, she’s grown rebellious and less likely to listen to her elders.
But in her case, that’s aggravated by the chronic absence of her parents.
The grandmother dotes on her grandchildren and imposes few limits. Qin’s decision to strike out on her own will threaten the family’s stability.
The annual migration is an enormous ordeal, and Fan could capture only a small portion of it. But the portions he captures prove more than enough to tell the story. He cuts deftly between wide sweeping shots of the great human crush waiting for trains and more personal medium shots and close-ups of the Zhangs as they make their way through it all.
Both the family and the film crew have to endure hardships. The masses of workers often have to wait days, sometimes even weeks, to get onto a train serving their region. The discomfort produces discontent. Fan captures tense shouting matches between civilians and armed officers dispatched to keep order. The viewer gets the strong impression that such things happen every year.
The film also captures a cross-section of the workers on the trains. Some brag about Chinese dominance in the world. Others voice reservations about economic policies. On some trains, the workers seem bunched up like grapes. On other trains, they seemed to be more spread out. The director moves his camera along these groups, knowing just when to cut away to another conversation.
Fan acted as his own director of photography, and he captures many astounding images.
From the panoramas at the train station, to intimate compositions of the Zhang family at the dinner table, to quiet but powerful sweeps through the organic colors of the Zhangs’s hometown, the film shows a wide but wise assemblage of colors, textures, and movement.
More powerful than the scenery, though, is the wide range of human emotions in “Last Train Home.” The Zhangs struggle to talk about important things. Sometimes, they avoid painful issues, but the close-ups show the strain on their faces. We see dejected sadness, resignation, affection, hope, and boiling-over rage. Few documentary films of the past few years — from China or anywhere else — come off so frank and so varied about what people feel.
How the Zhang family drama finally resolves, I’ll leave for you to discover. Suffice to say that by the end of the movie, family responsibility triumphs over selfishness and uncertainty.
Fan stays with the family until the resolve of the final shot.
“Last Train Home” took several years and several annual migrations to shoot. The effort pays off in every passing second. ♦
“Last Train Home” plays Friday, Oct. 22 through Thursday, Oct. 28 at Seattle’s Egyptian Theatre, 805 East Pine Street on Capitol Hill. For prices and show times, call 206-781-5755 or visit www.landmarktheatres.com.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.