RARELY IN A DOCUMENTARY does every shot matter as a bearer of emotion and information. Lixin Fan’s nonfiction debut, Last Train Home (2009), is just such an exceptional movie. The three opening images establish the conditions that shape the lives of the film’s subject, the Zhang family. First, an overhead camera pans across hundreds of people packed into a roofless railroad waiting-hall, their open umbrellas suggesting a field of pastel flowers. The image immediately brings to mind a digitally extended Andreas Gursky photo, but here, the space and all the people occupying it are actual, not virtual. In the second shot, the angle changes to show that the people in the hall are only a small fraction of the crowd that stretches for blocks outside the station, and now all of them are pressing forward, running toward the unseen trains. The third shot is simply a title card that explains what we have seen: During the New Year’s holiday, 130 million Chinese migrant workers pack the trains that take them from the cities to their home villages. It is the world’s largest human migration and, as we soon learn, the only time they get to see the children and parents they’ve left behind.
Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin left their Sichuan village to work in the sweatshops of Guangzhou when their daughter Zhang Qin was only a year old. Later they had a son who was also left with his grandparents on their tiny farm. At the time Lixin began his documentary, the father and mother had been working in Guangzhou for roughly seventeen years; their pay is about five dollars for a twelve-to-fourteen-hour day. They work six days a week and live in a dormitory cubicle near the factory. They try to save everything they earn to pay for the exorbitantly priced New Year’s holiday railroad tickets and to support the family back home. Their only goal is for their children to get a good education so that they can have better lives than their own. Unfortunately, the children are not cooperating.
Lixin filmed the Zhang family over a period of three years. The beginning, middle, and end of the film are punctuated by the spectacle of the migration—the camera jostling through the crowds in the station, boarding and riding the packed trains along with the Zhangs. (If any of the passengers questioned what the cameraman was doing taking up valuable space, there is no evidence of that on the screen.) Aside from these scenes, the documentary is stunningly intimate. Lixin’s technique is observational but not fly-on-the-wall. As the Zhangs go about their lives they are also engaged in an ongoing conversation with the filmmaker, confiding in him their thoughts and feelings. Lixin avoids any semblance of talking heads, keeping his camera to one side, framing his subjects close but mostly in profile. Thus it is all the more shocking when Qin, who is in the middle of a full-fledged adolescent rebellion, comes to blows with her father and then confronts the cameraman head-on, goading him to film her as, she shouts, she “really” is. Qin’s story is so typical it could seem like a dramatic cliché—she defies her parents, leaves school, and goes to work in the city, first in a sweatshop, then as a waitress in a topless bar where the female workers begin each shift chanting in unison, “The customer is always right. The boss is always right.” But the truth of her anguish and anger is heart wrenching and undeniable, as is the more restrained emotional expression of her parents and grandmother.
Elegantly edited and impeccably shot, Last Train Home builds a visual dynamic through the contrast between the gray, smog-ridden city and the gloriously beautiful countryside. One’s first reaction to seeing the Zhang children and their grandmother at home and in the fields of their tiny farm is to wonder why anyone would give up this natural paradise for the crowded, filthy city. But it soon becomes apparent that producing enough food for their own survival—a tiny harvest of bitter melons and rice—is as backbreaking as working the factories, and much lonelier. There is not even the illusion of a better future in rural China.
Eschewing voice-over and using only minimal intertitles, Lixin manages to include some crucial information about the larger economic picture. We learn, for example, that the grandmother became a farmworker during the Mao regime—when, she says, life was even harder. Her dream of living in the city ended even before the transition to capitalism. When the father gets sick and misses a day of work, we glean from his conversation that the migrant factory workers have no health benefits, unemployment insurance, or pensions. By the end of the film, both the father and mother are forced to acknowledge that when they are no longer strong enough to work, they will end up, impoverished, in their village, their only hope being that the children will take their turn contributing to their parents’ support. From what we’ve seen of Qin, last glimpsed on a dark street wearing heels and hot pants, that’s nothing they can count on. Indeed, Qin’s feeling that she was abandoned by her parents—who, she says, care about nothing except making money—and her understanding that part of their desire for her to have a better life is so that she can support them in their old age have already, perhaps irrevocably, damaged family ties and traditions.
But curiously, the film omits two crucial pieces of information that would allow us to fully understand the dilemma in which the 130 million migrant workers are trapped. Perhaps Lixin was forced into a game with the Chinese censors, or perhaps these underlying conditions are so obvious to the Chinese that he could not believe they would not be common knowledge elsewhere. In any case, it was only by reading interviews with the filmmaker that I learned that in its rush to a capitalist, industrialized economy, China withdrew support from agricultural production, thus forcing workers to flee the impoverished countryside to find work in the cities if they were to survive. Even more important to understanding the double bind in which the Zhangs are trapped is that the children of migrant workers are not allowed to go to school in the cities where their parents labor. To obtain any kind of education they must remain in the villages where they are registered at birth. Thus, the cost of becoming an industrialized giant is not only on individual workers but also on the institution of the family.
Omissions aside, this is a memorable movie, easily on the level of recent documentaries by Jia Zhangke, a filmmaker to whom Lixin is obviously indebted. Last Train Home is wonderfully crafted and has moments of lyric beauty but refuses the veneer of glamour that characterizes much of the cultural production of the new China. The world of the Zhang family is invisible to those who trade in Chinese art and fly in and out of art and information-technology fairs in Beijing and Shanghai. But next time you and I pull on our jeans from Barneys or Target, we should probably ponder who broke their backs to cover our asses.
Last Train Home opens Friday, September 3 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.