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Last Train Home – Movie Review

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 (links to movie page) 

1428 – The Aftermath of the Sichuan Earthquake

Du Haibin’s film “1428” captures a variety of scenes from post earthquake Beichuan in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Even though I was in China at that time, and remember checking the news hourly for days, there was still very little I knew about the conditions in Sichuan at that time. All of the images were being very carefully selected before they were shown on TV, but this film manages to capture everything that was left unseen.

The documentary begins just 10 days after the earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people, and shows how chaotic life can be as people struggle to know what steps to take next. Many people spent their days trying to scavenge scrap metal from collapsed buildings to sell, while others looted their neighbors’ apartments, some searched hopelessly for family members, and others started to discuss rebuilding the temple. It was a strong reminder that there is no way to prevent these kinds of disasters, and few ways to prepare for life after them.

For being a film about the largest disaster China has faced in the last 30 years, I was surprised that there wasn’t much time spent on talking about death, instead this work is much more concerned with how life moves on afterward.

This is highlighted by Du Haibin’s interest in a father and his mentally disabled adult son. The man is eligible to move into a shelter, but his son is not, so they remain in a small shack built out of the rubble of other buildings. They live off of what the father manages to sell, and stay there for more than 7 months (it’s not clear if they ever move). This provides a very interesting glimpse at mental health in China.

Another great moment captured is a discussion between old men as to why the earthquake happened. Had the Buddha allowed this because they had grown the wrong kind of water lilies? Was the Earth God upset because many people had stopped worshiping him, and his temple was in disrepair? Or perhaps it was because they had insulted one of these Gods in another way they had not yet mentioned? Some decide that it is a clear indication that the temples must be rebuilt, while others see it as a sign that the old religions are a waste of time.

I thought the most interesting theme that developed through out the movie is how the local people try to find a way to criticize the way some of them had been cut off from aid. To me it seemed like most of them had legitimate complaints, like the old woman who was denied an electric blanket because she had lost her ID card during the earthquake. Every time a person would begin to raise a complaint a neighbor would quickly step in and ask why they are criticizing the communist party. Given the choice many would shut up, but one old woman said “the party is wonderful, but I think there are some problems in the local government.”

This simple sentence I think underlines so many of China’s problems. The national gov’t is unwilling to see arguments against the local gov’ts as anything but an attack on the whole party.

I would recommend this film to anyone interested in disaster relief, Chinese civil society, rural life in china, or Chinese family values.

I’m not sure how widely available this film is for purchase, but it is available for streaming through Amazon, and if someone could check Netflix and comment below that would be a big help.

Tomorrow marks the 3rd anniversary of the Earthquake and we’ll be looking at China’s response in those first few days.

Please Vote For Me – An Attempt at Democracy in the Chinese Classroom

Please Vote for Me caught my eye because I was interested to see what exactly would happen when a Chinese teacher tried to introduce Democracy to the classroom. The film follows a group of 3rd graders in an elementary school in Wuhan to observe the students’ experiment with democracy.

The film starts with the teacher explaining to her rowdy class that democracy means that they will choose their own leader, so for the first time in the history of the school the students will get to choose their own class monitor.

The process they used seems to have been a fairly decent replica of politics at the third grade level. They begin the election cycle with a talent show, which seems to be a decent proxy for giving normal speeches, and then move on to debates. The debate section was a bit too ruthless for me to approve of it for future use; the topic was “the faults of my competitor are…”

The class monitor is an incredibly powerful role in the student hierarchy; they are in charge of behavior and homework, as well as choosing other class leaders. It seems to be training for how to become a gov’t official, although the movie itself does not touch on that topic.

The attempt at democracy has a rocky start, since the students have no say in which students are up for election. This perfectly reflects the idea of “democracy” in China, where the local gov’t chooses an official, and then you can vote for that person.

I think the real value of this film though is the way it dives into the home life of these three children, Cheng Cheng, Luo Lei and Xiaofei.

Cheng Cheng is the perfect example of a little prince, his mother and father look after his every need, even physically helping him get dressed even though he is 8 years old. Cheng Cheng is also the most devious of the three, and throughout the election tries to find ways to trick his classmates into voting for him.

Luo Lei at first seems to be very genuine about wanting to try to win the election on his own. His parents, who both work for the police, are relentless in their efforts to help him, and remind me a bit of Amy Chua’s description of being a Tiger Mother. This is most notable in their efforts to get him to perfect a flute performance.

Xiaofei is the only girl in the election, and is the only student I liked at the end of the movie. She is tormented by the other two, and struggles to find a way to stand up to these bullies. Her mother is a divorcee and complains of not being able to use her connections or free time to help her daughter as much as the other families help their sons.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in the future of democracy in China, or wants to have a better understanding of what it is like to grow up in China. I would also recommend this to teachers who want to show their students life in China, as it would provide material for dozens of discussions. It is available for purchase on Amazon, or through Netflix on demand (I think).