Monday, February 20, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Last Train Home (2009) ***½

NR, 85 min.
Director: Lixin Fan
Starring: Changhua Zhan, Suqin Chen, Qin Zhang, Yang Zhang, Tingsui Tang

A little more than a year ago, I traveled to Changsha, Hunan and Guangzhou, Guangdong in China to adopt my daughter. This was just before the Chinese New Year. We heard a great deal about the worker migration from Guangzhou to their homes for the holiday break. Before seeing the movie “Last Train Home”, I never could’ve imagined the phenomenon.

The movie follows one family. The mother and father work in factories in Guangzhou. The kids live with their grandmother in a rural province 1000 miles away. The only break the parents get from their jobs each year is for the Chinese New Year. This is the only time they get to see their family. In order to do that, they must participate in the largest human migration in the world. 130 million Chinese migrant workers make a similar journey every year. Imagine a New York City rush hour with billions of people going home instead of just a few million.

I know that description won’t do it. Seeing the cities in China was something I couldn’t have comprehended without going there. The first city we went to was Changsha, a rather small city in China with a population of a mere 3 million people. The city was so sprawling it reminded me of the city planet of Coruscant from “Star Wars”. Guangzhou was slightly larger, with a population of 15 million. The train stations were as big as our largest international airports. There seemed to be little organization to the ticketing services. And, the crowds were intimidating. Because we were there just before the holiday, we saw it at a time when few people were traveling.

What “Last Train Home” shows us is a ritual that makes these people’s lives seem almost not worth it. They leave home to give their families a better chance in life, but it seems that better life only leads to this life of migration. The first thing the parents address with their children is their school studies and grades. Nothing is more important to the parents. Education is the only way out of this cycle. I witnessed this pressure placed on studies while I was in China. It is a lot to put on the children.

The movie explores this foreign family dynamic without commentary. There are long sequences without any speaking. There is no voice over narration, no interviews. The movie just observes this family. The Chinese people are not very open about their personal lives. The movie leaves a lot of questions hanging by never pushing its subjects into answers. These are their lives, hard lives of sacrifice that yield so little reward.

No comments: