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Chinese labourers queue up in a scene from Last Train Home.

3 out of 4 stars


Last Train Home

  • Directed and edited by Lixin Fan
  • Classification: PG

If this documentary came with a pre-screening advisory, it probably would read: Warning! Contents Under Pressure. The contents in this case are the four members of the Zhang family and, by metaphoric extension, the 1.4 billion residents with whom they share the People's Republic of China.

Shot over three arduous years by Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan (he was an associate producer on 2007's Up the Yangtze), Last Train Home structures its narrative around a key moment in the Chinese calendar: New Year, when, each January or February, many of the nation's 130 million migrant urban factory workers take the one-week holiday to return to the rural communities they left behind. It's the world's single largest human migration, we're told at the film's start - an exodus almost existential in its motivation. In the words of one traveller, "If the family can't even celebrate New Year's together, life would be pointless."

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It's an intense and tense time, unsurprisingly, and superbly realized by Lixin's unflinching yet compassionate eye, the Zhang family his microcosm for the Chinese macrocosm. More 21st-century Grapes of Wrath than Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the film opens in the winter of 2006 in Guangzhou, the sprawling capital of Guangdong province, where we meet Changhua Zhang and wife, Suqin, sewing-machine operators in the same garment factory. With New Year's looming, they are desperately seeking train tickets to Sichuan, the province they left 2,000 kilometres to the west 16 years earlier. The Zhangs' two children - a girl, Qin, who has entered full-blown teenagehood, and a young boy, Yang - still live in a village there. If the ticket search is successful, it will be the family's first reunion in 12 months.

Heartwarming though the film seems, the viewer quickly discerns that this fractured family is on the verge of crumbling. The parents have rationalized their prolonged absences (and resultant estrangement from their children) as the price to be paid to ensure that son and daughter stay in school and have at least the prospect of a better future.

Qin, however, doesn't appreciate the sacrifices: "My parents barely lived with me," she says. "How can I have any feelings?" Around the film's midpoint, she ditches school, leaving brother and grandmother in Sichuan to get a job in a (yes) garment factory in (yes) Guangzhou.

Qin's parents try to repair the rupture while continuing to pressure their daughter to return to Sichuan and resume her schooling. Just before her 18th birthday, they invite her to accompany them to their home village for New Year's. But to get there, they must first pass the portals of the Guangzhou train station. Here, Lixin's film becomes a kind of Boschean vision of hell: A snowstorm has knocked out much of the electricity feeding China's rail system, leaving hundreds of thousands of frantic migrants to swarm and sweat in the station, sometimes for days, as they wait for service to resume. Working deep within the madding crowd, Lixin's camera brilliantly captures its claustrophobic crush, the frustrations, the exhaustion.

When the depleted Zhang family finally does reach the home village, the respite is not restful. An argument between father and daughter devolves into violence. In perhaps the film's most electrifying, or at least Godardian moment, a teary-eyed Qin turns to the camera to defiantly proclaim: "You want to film the real [reel?]me? This is the real me!'"

Sober? Dark? Bleak? You bet. Yet for all its unsparing depiction of frayed nerves, slumped bodies and wan faces, Last Train Home is, in its matter-of-fact way, a celebration of sorts of the resilience, determination and stoicism of China's people. Lixin's camera always has time, it seems, for the haunting beauty of the nation's countryside while noting the impressive achievements - the bridges, railways, tunnels and factories - bought by blood, sweat, tears and cheap wages. Already an award-winner at several documentary festivals, Last Train Home stands as an impressive feature debut from the thirtysomething Lixin Fan and a harbinger of more great documentary cinema.

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