Elevate Difference

Last Train Home

The establishing longshot of this documentary tilts down to show a few policemen in an open, paved space. Slowly the camera pans left, and the entire frame fills with thousands of people standing in a drizzle. Many hold bright, pastel-coloured umbrellas. It’s a beautiful image. The following shot, from ground level, shows that huge crowd rushing in pandemonium past the camera into a train station. These two shots are emblematic of the film: beauty and chaos inextricably interwoven.

Earth’s largest human migration occurs in China at their New Year. One hundred and thirty million people who work in cities scuffle for prized train tickets to return to villages where they were raised. Last Train Home fuses a macro view of this migration as a social and cultural phenomenon with a micro view of one family that makes this annual trek. In so doing, it underscores the high price in domestic turmoil many Chinese families pay for the country’s so-called economic miracle. It also vividly contrasts the lovely countryside with the polluted, teeming, ugliness of urban China.

Changhua Zang and Sugin Chen, husband and wife, work as sewing-machine operators in a factory in Guangzhou. They have two kids—Qin, a girl in her teens, and a boy, Yang, about ten—who live with their grandmother in Huilong Village where the parents were born. The film was shot over a couple of years, so we watch the kids grow up a bit. The parents labour at their dreary work to give their children a chance at prosperity. “You shouldn’t be like us,” they say. To this end, they constantly remind Qin and Yang to stay in school and get good grades. The parents also reveal decidedly mixed feelings about being wage slaves 2,000 kilometres away from their kids. They insist their destiny (etched in their faces) will be worth it if the kids acquire a higher education.

However, Qin, angry and bitter with her parents for their protracted absence, quits school and moves to a city, thus frustrating Changhua and Sugin’s hopes. She goes to work in a strobe-lit dance bar where the music is industrial technopop and employees’ training includes chanting capitalist slogans: “Customers are always right!” and “The boss is always right!” (Mao is turning over in his grave.) Yang, the son, stays in school and remains the light of his parents’ lives. If he quits, their sixteen-year devotion will have been for naught.

A great thing about Last Train Home is how it makes family a common human denominator: the daughter angry with her mother; the likable, hard-working, worried, exhausted, guilty, self-sacrificing parents; the wise grandmother; the young boy who is academically inclined and is his parents’ last, best hope. We know these people. They are us. When Changua finally breaks from his impossibly stoic reserve and slaps his daughter for disrespecting him by using fuck in his presence, we deeply empathize with them both.

A word about the production of this film. Lixin Fan, the director, is Chinese-Canadian. The film was produced mostly by government funds from Canada. It’s a tribute to the country and its art organizations that they have the acuity to fund a film that may seem at first to have nothing to do with Canada. But troubled families, Chinese, Canadian, or anywhere else are legion. And China itself is omnipresent. One need only look at the planet’s retail shelves to see that. This superb documentary allows us inside a Chinese phenomenon to see how similar and connected we all are now.

Finally: Be sure to stick around to hear the plaintive, chilling, gorgeous, acapella aria sung over the end credits.

Written by: Neil Flowers, April 15th 2011