It’s difficult to review the documentary Last Train Home without knowing more of Chinese politics, economics, and social tradition. I suspect without the benefit of such understanding, the audience too will be unsure of what they’re watching outside of a family drama. The generation gap unfolds in countless environments, but the larger scale issues that affect the subjects of this particular film are alien to the film itself. More importantly, within the framework are moments that will stick with you long after you’ve seen it.
It’s an incredibly depressing investment focusing mostly on a family that only comes together once every Chinese New Year. The parents are migrant workers who take part in the largest human migration in the world. They stand in lines sometimes for days to see their kids ever so infrequently. When they finally do, things get worse.
Zhang and Chen are under so much pressure it’s difficult to watch. They work sewing machines in small, green tinted factory rooms or stand sandwiched between 129,999,998 other people desperate to see home. That’s all we ever see them do.
The city they work in is apparently so smoggy that buildings can only barely be seen. Every urban, exterior shot is under streetlights, never sun. This is where I begin to wonder if selective editing may be distorting reality. I have no doubt that these people are in a very difficult situation, but the film proposes they only leave one room during Chinese New Year. There are prison documentaries that don’t portray life as being this bad.
If I have any idea of how this is particular to Chinese society, it is not from the film but the Olympics held in China. There, a young boy who saved the life of a classmate during an earthquake explained to the entire world that he did this because it was expected of him as the appointed class leader. There was a distinct lack of compassion in this statement.
Maybe that’s what it’s really like, a country of cattle cars. For its train station scenes of crowds trampling over everything and anyone, Last Train Home might have benefitted from the documentary Manufactured Landscapes. I wish more care had been taken towards the majesty of it. We know there are unbelievable crowds of commuters striving to get home, but there’s only briefly a vantage point on which to understand the scale. The picture below this paragraph is its half-hearted attempt to do this. If you’re making a documentary on the world’s largest exodus, film it.
Last Train Home never provides understanding of the Chinese system. We only know migrant workers live apart from their homes, and we know what that’s doing to the family depicted in here.
Is this an example of my own ignorance? Probably, but watching the documentary, I begged to know why the parents don’t move back home and work the farm. Their being away is completely destroying their family, particularly their daughter’s connection to it, which brings us to the most compelling aspect of this film.
Qin is a girl of an entirely new generation of entirely new ideals. Like her brother, the only communication with her parents is when they are telling her to go back to school. That’s not what Qin needs. First and foremost, she lacks a strong personal connection to anyone living.
The editing of this documentary might have you believe that the parents are martyring themselves to provide a better future for Qin and her brother, and that their daughter is abhorrently selfish in response. I’m positive there’s truth in Qin’s failure to perceive how much has been sacrificed for her well-being, but reading between the lines can suggest a far more complicated situation than is filmed.
Qin’s parents are one-note disappointed in her for not finishing school, so much so that they cannot speak to her directly. If the father says something to her it’s “Your mother feels that” and for the mother, “Your father feels that.” Similarly, they offer no emotional support for their son. They ask for his grades, and openly frown on his being fifth in his class. How many people are in this class? What is he doing that is so wrong?
Don’t think this is a focal point for the film, because it’s not. Within unrelenting scenes of how thankless the children are is only a hint of personal neglect, as opposed to neglect caused by their impossible situation. But wait, their elders begged Zhang and Chen to stay on the farm. Blink and you’ll miss that fact.
Last Train Home comes to a boil when their daughter unleashes verbally on her parents and to the world that she knows is watching. She seems justified for being in turmoil, but looks to be misplacing this anger on her parents.
Connect the dots, however, and a different picture is formed. A key moment features Qin speaking to her grandfather at his final resting place. In this scene, we are made aware that he was her only real emotional connection in the family. The moment is crucial to remember because in a different scene, where her father is physically assaulting her for being disrespectful, she says “You told me it was my fault that Grandfather died.”
In the context of this film, the beating feels surprisingly justified, and the father we think we’re familiar with would never have said such a thing. If the documentary fails to give us an honest picture, this girl might deserve to live her life. It might actually be for the best that she, and other 17-year-olds like her break away from the cycle we’re presented with.
Director Lixin Fan provides too much misdirection and too little balance, perhaps due to a lack of vision rather than personal bias. He has made an important documentary with Last Train Home, but I will be surprised if he accomplishes another soon.