Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Lixin Fan.
After seeing this documentary from China I am never going to complain about catching a crowded train in peak hour in Melbourne ever again.
In China every year millions of peasants from the countryside make their way into the big cities to toil away in menial jobs to earn good money to make a better life for their families. Most of them have abandoned their parental responsibilities to slave away in cramped conditions and send their salary home. But when the Chinese New Year holiday comes around, hundred of millions of Chinese workers try to make their way back home to celebrate with their families. This is the largest mass migration in human history and it puts enormous pressure on China’s public transport and railway system. Train tickets are hard to get, stations are overcrowded, and the army form barricades to prevent stampeding.
This documentary from first time director Lixin Fan follows the efforts of one family in particular as they make this annual harrowing 12,000 mile, 50-hour odyssey. There are tears, stress, chaos, and an increasing sense of desperation. Fan filmed over the course of three years to gain the trust of the Zhang family, and his observational cinema verite style works well.
There is one powerful scene in which they confront their teenage daughter Zhang Qin who has, in a moment of rebellion, left school to find work in a local factory and earn her own money. “All they care about is money,” she says angrily. Her father reacts in quite unexpected fashion. One wonders how much the director manipulated events behind the scene or recreated certain incidents in order to get strong reactions and add dramatic tension to the material.
Still, Last Train Home offers some fascinating insights into the culture and values of the Chinese. Fan also highlights the dichotomy between the country’s rural past and its headlong rush into the modern century and its emergence as a global economic superpower. Fan also worked on Up The Yangtze, which looked at the problems facing the regions around the massive Three Gorges dam built on the river, and seems fascinated with the direction modern China seems to be taking. The intimate tragedy of the Zhang family is played out against the larger canvas of modern China, with its Olympics and high rise skyscrapers. And their story is not unique but it gives a personal perspective to a serious issue.
Last Train Home has been beautifully shot, and Fan, who also acts as cinematographer, captures some remarkable images of the breathtaking landscapes. However, the material does become a bit repetitive, and would be much stronger and more effective as a one-hour documentary on television.