Last Train Home (2009) is a feature length documentary directed by Lixin Fan, and stars Suqin Chen, Changhua Zhan, Qin Zhang, and Yang Zhang in a film about a couple of migrant workers in China whom every year, fight the overcrowded trains to make it home in time for the Chinese New Year.
Imagine 130 million people all trying to make it home for the holidays all at the same time. All at one train station. Now try to imagine what it would look like. How would a potentially chaotic event be controlled? Lixin Fan accomplishes this by aiming his camera down on the millions of people anxious an pushing against one another trying to get home. Then, the camera pans in and fix on a couple rushing to board the same train.
Winter 2006, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province
Mountains of blue-jean material lined the streets, while small children play in-between the mounds on the sidewalks as traffic sped by. Boxes with “made in China” stamped on the side which acknowledges their export destination to a foreign land. People hurry in large, concrete structures with battered walls and within the dark surroundings, and there is a whirl of busying activity. Sewing machines, miles of textiles, and people busy sewing, cutting, and counting as small children nap on the large textile tables,while others play in-between their parents legs and the smaller sewing tables. Suqin tells her husband, Zhan, to rest while she finishes their laundry in a wash bucket. Much later, she is done. Her husband pulls closed the sheet that covers the doorway and they rest. Later, they are seen braving the crowds trying to purchase tickets for home where unsuccessful Zhan is directed to another ticket office, and his wife is on a pay phone explaining to their daughter that they will be late getting home. She encourages them to continue to study hard in school, and that they have been trying to get tickets to come home for the last week. You watch as the strain takes its toll on Suqin. She misses her kids. When she finally meets up with her husband, she tells him how much she misses her children. Zhan, who barely speaks at all through-out the film, asks her why she misses them, because when they finally get to see them, they would not know what they will say to them.
To this, she says nothing.
Hailong Villiage, Sichuan Province, 2100 Kilometers NW of Guangdong Province
In the beautiful countryside of the Sichuan Province, a young girl is seen working and gathering food. Qin, daughter and oldest child of Zhan and Suqin, talks about her working on the farm and going to school–and how some of her friends dropped out of school, just so they can work in the factories. She doesn’t miss her parents. When her parents tell her and her brother to do well in school, that their grades could be much better–she feels that they are nagging and being unfair. She does not want to see her parents because she believes they do not get along. Her grandparents raised her and she refuses to listen to parents that she only sees a few days out of the year.
“My parents said to me “stay home, wait until Qin got older.” I didn’t listen. I hardened my heart, and left with my husband”–Suqin.
When her parents finally arrive, their mother calls out for them–the first thing she asks for are their report cards while her husband hands out gifts to the both of them. At dinner the parents emphasize the importance of going to school and working hard at studying. You can tell they only want the best for their children and do not want them to grow up and work in factories like they do. After such a short visit, Suqin and Zhan are back on the train to work. They will visit their small family again for a few days next year. Qin is tired of the countryside. She wants to go to the city and work with her friends, so she quits school and tells her younger brother to help out with their grandmother–be sure to honor and burn spirit money for their grandfather–she tells her brother that she will never come back to the farm for it is such a sad place.
Xin-tang Town, Guangdong City
Qin now works in the factory. She does not mind it. Freedom is happiness. Like any young person, she complains to her friends about her parents and how they only worry about money and not her. One of her friends tries to be the voice of reason to Qin, saying that her parents only worked in factories and were away so much, so that she can have the money she needed for school. She doesn’t agree. “Money isn’t everything,” she said. She even complains about her boss making fun of the 40″ waistlines pants they have to sew…Qin worries now that she will get fat.
“Have you ever seen a Chinese with a 40″ waistline? Foreigners with waistlines that huge? Americans are fat. Fat and tall so they need big pants!”
Her parents were saddened by the news that Qin dropped out of school and now works in a factory. Her parents wished that they worked harder and provided more money so she wouldn’t have to drop out of school. Qin enjoys her new found freedom, getting her hair done, shopping with her friends at the mall and buying new clothes. Much better than being in school.
Chinese New Year, 2007
Qin’s parents visit to tell her that they are going home for the New Year. Qin, says nothing. She does not want to go home. Her mother tries to establish bonding with Qin, telling her how important it is for them to go home every year to see their families. Qin, says nothing to her mother. She did not care if she went home at all. Now the three of them brave the crowds, getting tickets and waiting to be able to board the crowded trains. You see the anguish and frustration on the faces of all the migrant workers as they try to get home to their families. You listen to the stories they complain about their own families, the massive amount of manufactured goods they produce, and factories they work in.
“The export prices are amazingly low…”
“We make all foreign brands…never our own. China does not have its own brand. The Westerners order, we manufacture…”
“Let me tell you about Western lifestyles. When I work, I make 2000 yuan a month. I save 1800 yuan. When Westerners make 2000, they spend 2000 and sometimes more. “
Once home, Qin is disrespectful because she didn’t want to be there. At dinner, her parents decide that Qin is 18, she can make up her own mind from now on. Her mother is thinking if she should stay home now, so that the youngest, will not make the same mistake. Suqin’s mother is old and she will need help. Then, the 2008 financial crisis hits. Factories are empty. Thousands lose jobs. Unlike America, there is no welfare or unemployment insurance. So what ever money they earned and saved will come in handy for these tough times. As Sugin heads home–Zhang escorts her to the train. He watches as she boards then heads off back to his sewing factory, after nearly 17 years of migrating back and forth. He now has to make the trip home each year–alone.
The Last Train Home chronicles how capitalism transformed the landscape in China, forcing millions to migrate to the city for work. Directer Lixin Fan beautifully captures the migration of the millions of migrants who make this trip every year, and the emotional toll this has taken on one family. The conflicts of modernization and the way things used to be is evident when listening to the Grandmother discuss how things were when she was a child. The film also gives a glimpse inside China and how the supply, demand, and consumption of Western countries, transformed an entire culture.