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Movie Review: The Last Train Home

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The Last Train Home was the third film in the Modern Cinema weekend festival. It’s the kind of film you would expect in a roundup of best documentary films of 2010.  It was filmed on location at Guangzhou, Guangdong, China and released in the US at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2010. It has already won numerous awards.

Lixin Fan directs a fabulous human portfolio of experience on the other side of the world: China. These are the desperate households of China and this documentary follows the Zhang family who willingly become part of pushing their country into global superpower status. The choice is an easy one—because it is all about escaping crushing poverty. Fan follows the new life they carve out by leaving the countryside as teenagers, with little formal education and no money but with dreams of cashing in on the economic boom of the mid-1990s that leads to dozens of factory citadels dotting China’s landscape, peopled by migrant Chinese who live and work there in daily 12-15 hour shifts. Workers do not return home every night, but if lucky go home by train once a year during the Chinese New Year.

The Zhang couple who are the focus of the documentary are not even that lucky because they have not been home since they left 16 years ago. In the film, we follow their conversations about going home and then follow them to the train station, only to find that every single ticket has already been sold. They are puzzled but don’t give up on a long-awaited 16-year rendezvous with the two children they have not seen since. Losing hope for a minute of securing tickets when officers broadcast over the PA to the crowd to stop waiting in line for tickets that do not exist, the dad decides to try the returned ticket window and he scores two train tickets. Since they only speak on the phone to the children, they do not expect a warm welcome. As expected, the visit is bittersweet.

It looks and sounds all too familiar to modern American families—kids want money to shop at the mall yet quickly hurl insults when upset! A comedic exchange between the teen daughter and dad wears out the family. They rush to pray to Buddha and burn offerings to the family gods. Advice to the children—to do well in school and stay in school—falls on deaf ears. Young Miss Zhang runs off to clean factory floors against her grandmother’s advice.

After the daughter runs off, the parents get anxious and set out on another arduous voyage to retrieve her. The second voyage turns disastrous when power to the electric trains is cut due to heavy snowfall. Chinese troops are called in to quell erupting throngs of Chinese who wait at the station for nearly a week without food or rest. They must all either get back home or back to their factories where they live full-time in small spaces with no running water, private bathrooms or kitchens.

The Zhangs would not be caught in this furious spate of winter if their only daughter had listened to a caring adult. Yes, it is a familiar story with a Chinese twist. The only difference is that most Americans do not live the migrant life portrayed in this well-paced documentary. However, it is all too common in China, Mexico, and South Africa to find families whose very bonds are broken by need—the need to bring in enough money to feed, clothe, and shelter a large family. There is little room for error because no safety nets exist in the form of welfare or unemployment checks. That need often leads to bus stations and train tracks that take one or both parents away for extended periods of time. The Zhangs are no exception. As one of the desperate households in China, they stare at a dire future.

The Last Train Home begins in 2006 and moves through 2008 and the global economic meltdown. The other nameless workers who take part in this film speak of happiness and freedom but it does not resonate. The meltdown has come to China and many factories shutter or go silent, leaving countless men and women without jobs or income. Fortunately the factory the Zhangs work at is not a part of the Chinese factory closings. The income they count on is safe for the time being, and the film ends on that note. Life goes on for this fractured family caught up in survival of the individual for sake of the nation.

85 minutes; Chinese, with English subtitles.

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