This review originally appeared on IONCinema
Last Train Home, the directorial debut of documentary filmmaker Lixin Fan, has had an impressive streak at the past year's major film festivals. An official selection of Sundance Film Festival, and winner at several festivals including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, and top tier docu festival IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam), this chronicles two years in the lives of the Zhengs, a working-class Chinese family who are separated for economic reasons. The parents are two of the 130 million Chinese migrant workers who currently work in the factories of China's major cities, leaving the countryside for opportunity and economic growth. They are only allowed to go home once a year, and that is for Chinese New Year in February. But with that many workers, it is practically impossible that all will be guaranteed a train ticket home to see their families.
Fan uses a hand-held camera to capture intimate yet bleak panoramic shots of the mass hysteria that ensues when millions of people are struggling to gain a ticket, then trying to even find space on the overcrowded train. In each scene, everybody is worried that they won't be one of the lucky ones, that they will be left behind and miss the chance for a nice holiday. Spending their days and nights hunched over sewing machines in loud, congested factories, this is an escape into the comfort of home traditions. People being pushed and shoved, loaded down with luggage (often carrying quite heavy loads practically on their heads) presents a dystopian image of low-income workers in overpopulated cities with all the same dreams and hopes, but not everybody will be rewarded with a rags to riches life.
The elder Zhengs work down to their fingers sewing clothing to be sent to America. It's a sobering reality for Western audiences to see the faces behind the "Made in China" label, and how there are real people struggling to provide better lives for their children. Fan's narratives with the family members depicts a unit that is broken, emotions running high from immense guilt from the parents, to seething resentment from their teenage daughter, who lives out in the country with her grandmother and younger brother. The traditional rural life is abandoned by the young people, migrating to the cities, leaving the children and elderly folks to try to maintain farm life. City life is intensely competitive, and young adults starting at 15 quit school to assert their independence working in the factories. They're working long hours for low pay, but it's something they can call their own.
The Zheng family are split, not just by distance, but by familial strain. They are missing out on their children growing up, and their daughter is frustrated and angry at them for leaving her. She takes the risk in leaving school and going to work in the factories, despite her parents' protestations. Her stance is brave and strong, wanting to take control of her own life at 17. Tensions run high during a uncomfortably raw moment where father and daughter are at each other, hollering and snarling at one another. It not only rips through all the niceties that they've been giving each other (and the audience), but breaks the fourth wall, the threads of their family coming undone. It's a sad example of the circle of industrial life in the world, the parents who worked hard to provide a better life for their children only to see their children go the same route out of instant results instead of the long-term results of education.
Last Train Home shines a light on people who would normally not be seen in the media eye, anonymous workers who toil for hours creating clothing for consumers who don't question the distance that it traveled to their shops, and whose livelihood hangs on a factory's supply and demand. Already, these factories will have machines replace humans, increasing output, and leaving millions jobless and lost.
Zeitgeist Films releases Lixin Fan's Last Train Home on Friday, September 3rd.