Last Train Home claims to be a documentary about migrant workers heading home for Spring Festival, but it is so much more than that.
The director opted to focus on a single family, whose parents work in Guangdong province, while their children are looked after by their grandmother in rural Sichuan. In happens to cover the one Spring Festival that almost didn’t happen because of the massive winter storms that swept China in 2008, and depicts the anxiety that many felt. As one the father says, “If you can’t spend Spring Festival with your family, than what is the point of living”.
The daughter in the film was the most interesting character I thought. After failing to achieve academic success in high school, she drops out before graduation and begins working in a factory near where her parents work. It is a decision that seems to drive a spike through her parents’ hearts, which seems to be part of her motive.
They left the countryside when she was only 1 year-old in an attempt to provide a better life for her. They see it as a completely selfless act. After 16 years of seeing them but once a year, she decides that it was their selfishness that led them to seek better wages far away.
It is a topic that thousands of families are trying to address now in China, as the post-90’s generation comes of age, grappling with their past and their future.
For me it was difficult at times to watch the scenes of factory work because I know dozens of my students, and their families, are currently working in identical situations. It was very moving to see the actual conditions.
The filmmakers approach is the exact opposite of directors like Michael Moore, instead of telling you how to feel about a complex topic, they stay completely silent and let those being documented guide the plot. It’s a very smart approach that let’s the audience ask their own questions, and try to find their own answers. This seems to be common in Chinese documentaries, and I hope at some point we’ll enjoy this in the US too.
The questions I found myself asking, ran parallel with many of the topics we’ve covered in past posts, things like the Chinese idea of family, child abuse, factory work, and the crazy migration that is Spring Festival (200+million people heading home).
I would highly recommend this film for anyone interested in family life in modern China, or the effects of our consumption of cheap goods on the Chinese people. It is incredibly thought-provoking, and beautifully shot.
Available on Netflix and online from Amazon.com (links to movie page)