“Last Train Home,” a review
Prosperity and the Good Life
“Who doesn’t want to see their kids prosperous?” says the mother of Qin and Yang in the documentary, Last Train Home. This is a refrain begun earlier by the grandmother: “But who doesn’t want their children to live a good life?”
If we are to believe the mother and the grandmother, prosperity and the good life are the two goals of all families. China appears to be no exception to this rule in Lixin Fan’s brilliant documentary of one family’s attempts to achieve some form of prosperity in the new hypercapitalist China.
But it is a prosperity that has a profound emotional price tag. Over a period of thirteen years, the Zhang family becomes fractured when the mother and father leave their two children home with the grandmother as the parents pursue the Chinese dream to succeed.
And they don’t just leave home to go to a nearby city. They travel a little over 1300 miles to work in a makeshift factory in the city of Guangzhou in Guandong Province. Like the other 130 million migrant workers working in cities all over China, the Zhang couple returns only once a year to their small village.
The Migrant Experience and Family Trauma
One could easily write this documentary off as just another migrant-worker narrative. After all, there is nothing new about families being split apart when one parent (usually the male) leaves the hearth for long periods of time to support the family.
What makes this migrant experience so different is that viewers get to share the many levels of family trauma resulting from the parents leaving their two children. In one conversation with his wife, who is frantic about getting train tickets to return to their village, the husband cynically says, “When we’re home, we don’t even know what to say to the kids.” He openly admits that, as parents, they have lost the ability to communicate with their children.
This becomes increasingly evident when their daughter, Qin, speaks to her grandfather at his grave. She confides to him, although virtually, that she doesn’t want to see her parents. “We don’t get along,” she tells him, as she lights candles in the fields where he is buried. She prepares herself for her own radical departure from the village in an open confession, “I may not come to see you for a long time.”
Qin pays her final homage to the grandfather who, with the grandmother, became a surrogate parent to her. “I will ask little brother to burn spirit money for you,” she tells him.
Even in her rebellion, she reveals a personal obligation and indebtedness to a grandparent who willingly took on her own father’s role as protector and caregiver. Like a child wishing good thoughts or praying for a relative’s good health, she will ask her brother to “send” virtual money to her grandfather in the spirit world.
In this scene, Qin’s depth clearly goes beyond a teenager’s narcissism and balances out the hard-edged adolescent who openly admits to a friend, “My parents barely lived with me; how can I have any feelings?”
When Qin’s parents force her to leave her factory job and return home with them, she arrives in a dark mood of betrayal. She lashes out at them with all the venom of an enraged abandoned child: “You never meant to look after us.” The father physically attacks her after Qin spews out her rage with a series of expletives. Reaching his own level of frustration, he continues beating her.
The grandmother reveals her own level of despair in having sent Qin to school: “It was all wrong,” she says.
It is a very raw moment in the film when the parents and grandmother are directly confronted with the reality of having pursued the dream of prosperity at such a high psychological cost to the entire family. Even the younger son catches on earlier in the documentary, as he surveys the landscape of the village with his sister: “This is a sad place,” he says plaintively. In the end, no one in the family is spared the parents’ pursuit of the “better life.”
After the confrontation between the father and the daughter, the mother openly gives her daughter permission to leave while, at the same time, revealing her own homespun philosophy of life: “There are many different paths. She can do whatever she wants. We cannot force her.”
Qin will eventually leave the family to work in an urban nightclub. She will become the next generation pursuing the same dream of prosperity and success.
The learning curve for the mother and father is very deep, as it is for the entire family. The mother realizes that her only hope is to make up to her son for her own absence from the family. She decides to return home and raise the son in the small village. “We can’t let what happened to Qin happen to Yang (the son),” she says.
In the final scene, the father is seen walking back to the migrant-worker dormitory as the mother leaves to board the train back to the family village.
In my approach to this film, I made a conscious choice to hone in on a family in crisis. I believe the film’s merits rest almost entirely on the director’s ability to portray the psychological dimensions of that crisis.
“Last Train Home” as a Traditional Narrative–Beginning, Climax, and Resolution
In many ways, “The Last Train Home,” follows a very traditional narrative form with a strong climax, an event that contains the highest point of dramatic intensity—the physical confrontation between the father and the daughter, solidifying the young girl’s decision to leave—with a cathartic resolution when the mother decides to return to the village from her factory job.
The documentary narrative is also a kind of didactic allegory of China’s current sociological crisis. China, of course, is trying to mirror the success stories of so many Western industrial capitalist countries. The film clearly tells us that the desire to prosper is seeping into the rural lives of millions of Chinese.
And those millions are flocking to the cities to work in clothing factories, to live in dormitories, to stand in train stations for hours, and sometimes days, waiting for trains to take them home for the once-a-year trek back to their home villages.
Through its many real characters, the film tells us much about some of the values that are undoubtedly universal:
(1) Parents want their children to succeed. Qin’s friend reminds her of this value when she says, “They wanted you to have a better life, so they left to make money to raise you.”
(2) Success can only be attained by leaving the homestead. There are many variations of this theme repeated by Qin and the grandmother, not to mention the fact that the parents live out this theme for thirteen years. Or by studying hard (the mother and grandmother consistently refer to grades and the need to “study” hard)
(3) Sometimes success comes at a profound price. Qin reminds us of that when she makes the comment about her parents: “All they care about is money”–a statement, by the way, she conveniently forgets when she decides to finally leave the village to work in a nightclub.
(4) The importance of family. Aside from the inner dynamics that go on in the Zhang family and the grandmother and the touching scene when Qin talks to her dead grandfather, there is one powerful scene where the father is barely able to recount the story of his sister’s refusal to lend them 50 yuan. In his mind, the tragedy of that refusal runs very deep.
There are also many other cultural and historical insights in the film. We are given some clear visual shots of empty factories suffering the collateral effects of the world financial crisis of 2008. In a separate interview with a migrant worker working in a factory that makes badminton racquets, a worker admonishes his own country for not having name brands of its own—the country, as he sees it, is stuck in manufacturing for other countries (this interview, by the way, occurs around the same time as the Olympics in Beijing—a historical moment of Chinese national pride).
There are at least two references to American profligacy. One worker comments on the large waste sizes of the pants he is sewing, pants that will be shipped in the many “made-in-China” boxes ready to be exported to the United States. Another migrant worker jokes about how Americans spend all their money (“If I make 2,000 yuan, I need to save 1800; Americans make 2,000, they spend 2,000.”)
I have been a student of modern China for over twenty years. Last Train Home reveals another layer of the profound sociological shifts happening in China after decades of civil war, famine, drought, the tragic economic policies of Mao that caused millions of deaths, Tienanmen Square, and the more recent surge to become an übercapitalist country.
Let’s just hope that China can weather the storm of this latest crisis with the 130 million migrant workers. If the Zhang family is any indication, it looks like Chinese families are completely on their own.