Last Train Home (2009) Directed by Fan Lixin
Guangzhou Train Station, Spring Festival—one of the world's most crowded train stations during China's busiest travel time. What sounds like a worst-case scenario most people would try to avoid at all cost, Montreal-based director Lixin Fan sees as a tempting adventure, throwing himself (and his actors and crew) right into the ocean of millions of migrant workers. While the camera dives into the masses, Fan's focus emerges: the lives of a Sichuanese couple eager to follow the rites of the annual family procession.
But when Suqin and her husband, Changhua, finally arrive in their home village to celebrate the lunar new year, their children—teenaged daughter Qin and her younger brother Yang—maintain a polite distance from their parents. The Zhangs are a family only on paper, as it was Grandma who raised the kids while the parents slaved year after year in Guangdong textile factories. Following diplomatic protocol, gifts are handed out and received (Qin gets a new mobile phone), but the parents' one and only concern is the children's rankings in their classes, not their happiness. Qin is fed up with school and wants to start working despite her parents' admonitions not to follow their miserable example. She ignores their pleas and, after a friend finds her a job at a for-export apparel factory, she moves to Guangdong the year before she's due to graduate from high school. She later ditches the textiles for night shifts in one of Shenzhen's disco bars.
Despite having collected a dozen awards at boutique film festivals around the globe for his debut film and an endless number of positive if not rave reviews, Fan fails to tell the whole story of the migrant family, and this becomes suddenly clear when Qin, in a seemingly scripted and clearly self-conscious moment, speaks directly to the camera during a melodramatic-and-yet-not quarrel with her parents. With this single, standalone action, the viewer loses the feeling of being an invisible and passive gazer and starts to wonder about Qin's performance. The sudden switch forces the audience to look more closely at the scene—in which her father slaps her for cussing—and what has been selected for the audience to see, and what has been hidden. That notion stays as the movie ends rather abruptly at one of the film's many train-station scenes, not leaving enough time to even mentally say goodbye to the Zhangs.
We don't know them; we've hardly touched the surface—they've been shown as human statistics more than as humans, mere numbers moving from A to B following the determined path set by their family, social, and economic background. It's a one-dimensional image of a static paper cutout facing a desperate situation, devoid of hope and pleasure, for whom the highlight of the year, every year, is the Spring Festival ritual of spending days on an overcrowded train to go home. On the plus side, it captures those must-see-to-believe scenes of China—and nearly all of the dialogue is in Sichuan dialect—making it a good film to show friends and family who want to know "what living in China's like."
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 38 ("bad taste"). Photos by Zeitgeistfilms