Salt of the earth: Last Train Home ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 23, 2010)

One of the best family melodramas I have seen this year is not fictional, but rather an absorbing, beautifully photographed documentary by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan called Last Train Home.

The family in the spotlight is the Zhangs: Changhua (dad), Suqin (mom), their 17 year old daughter Qin, and their young son. Changhua and Suqin are two of the 130 million migrant workers who crowd China’s train depots and bus stations every spring in a mass, lemming-like frenzy to get back to their rural villages in time for New Year’s holiday. And like many of those workers, these are the few precious days they have per year to see their children, who, due to the fact that their parents lack urban residency status, do not qualify to attend the public schools in the cities where they work.

Changhua and Suqin toil away their days in the city of Guangzhou, working in a factory. Early on in the film, a wordless sequence, wherein we watch the couple performing their evening ablutions before turning in for the night, speaks volumes about the joyless drudgery and quiet desperation of their daily life. They appear to be bunking in a closet-sized cubicle (with only a curtain for privacy) within some kind of communal flophouse (possibly adjacent to, or perhaps  part of, their factory building-which is an even more depressing thought). One colorless day blends into the next.

The only break in the monotony comes when the New Year arrives, and the couple  attempt to make their way home in time-and I have to say, this is as far from a madcap John Hughes romp starring Steve Martin and John Candy that you can possibly get. After several frustrating setbacks, they eventually find a place on a train (at thrice the usual rates). The scenes at the train stations are surreal and harrowing; the press of so much humanity, crammed into one finite space, and all of one mind (to claim a seat and stash their luggage no matter who gets injured) is mind boggling. Happy New Year.

The real drama, however, unfolds once the bedraggled parents reach their destination. They are greeted by a young son who is much more excited about the toys they have brought than he is in seeing them again (it’s been three years since he’s seen his mother) and a sullen, hostile Qin, who resents their prolonged absences.

The children are much closer to their grandmother, who has been taking care of them while Changhua and Suqin work in the city. When Qin announces that she has decided to quit school and follow in her parents footsteps by finding a job in the city, the shit hits the fan (like parents anywhere else in the world, they live in hope that their kids will achieve more than them).

The director was given an amazing degree of latitude by the family n filming their lives; to the point of feeling almost too close for comfort at times (especially during an intense family row that gets physical). As difficult as some of it is to watch, however, the end result is an engrossing portrait of what happens in a country like China, which has seen so much rapid industrialization and exponential economic growth in such a relatively short period of time that the infrastructure and social policies have fallen light years behind.

And the saddest (and most ironic) part is that the millions of working poor like the Zhangs, who made the country’s new prosperity possible, are in no position to benefit from it. Hold on sec. Maybe we have more in common with China than I thought…

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