Seen this spring at “New Directors/New Films,” Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan’s prize-winning documentary Last Train Home is an intimate portrait of an unfathomable immensity, focusing on a single family caught up in the world’s largest mass migration. Opening overhead shots show a huge mob waiting in the rain to push their way into China’s Guangzhou railroad station—participants in an annual New Year’s journey made by 130 million workers to their homes in the nation’s rural outback. Fan then picks up on the struggle waged by the Zhangs, a married couple of Guangzhou sewing factory workers, to reach their Sichuan village 1,200 miles away.
Everything is edged with desperation. However arduous Last Train Home may have been to shoot, it was infinitely more arduous to live. Like migrant workers everywhere, the Zhangs are exploited—paying triple for train tickets, ineligible for any sort of social welfare outside their village. For 17 years, the couple has sent money home to support the two children being raised by a peasant grandmother. Their same-time-next-year relation with the kids comes to a boil just in time to be documented by Fan. While the Zhangs push their children to study hard (so as not to be like them), the furious teenager Qin is convinced that her parents have abandoned her (“All they care about is money”). She defiantly drops out of school to herself become a migrant worker, landing a dead-end job in a Guangzhou jeans factory.
Fan, who made seven trips to China and spent three years working on Last Train Home, then joins another arduous Zhang family New Year’s voyage from Guangzhou to Sichuan. This time, the army is deployed to maintain order as travelers are separated from their families and stuck for days in train stations. The violence continues when reunited father and daughter wind up brawling in grandma’s kitchen. “You want to film the real me—this is the real me,” Qin shouts as the camera continues to document the humiliated family. Despite a brief sequence of rapt factory workers watching the televised Olympic ceremonies, Fan rarely evokes the larger picture. Last seen, Qin is bussing tables at a disco, while ancient grandma labors alone in the field. Last Train Home calculates the human cost of the Chinese miracle by mapping a family tragedy presumably multipliable by millions.