Last Train Home, 2009

From the seemingly mundane (if logistically nightmarish) objective of documenting the annual mass exodus of migrant workers from industrial cities as they return home to their rural villages in time for the Chinese New Year, Lixin Fan poignantly captures the dissolution of family in the face of globalism, poverty, and disenfranchisement in Last Train Home. Shot from the perspective of factory workers Changhua and Sugin Zhang over the course of three years as they travel for their only trip home to Guangzhou in the Sichuan province for the year, the film understatedly reveals the toll that their absence has taken on the children they have left behind. For their adolescent son, the separation has led to a need for affirmation, trying to win his parents’ approval by repeatedly rehashing his accomplishments in school (feeding off their constant nagging on the importance of a good education). For Qin, their strong willed teenaged daughter, her grandparents – now only her grandmother – are her true parents and are entitled to her deference, rejecting their attempts at discipline and authority. With Qin eager to assert her independence and leave the village to try her hand at factory work, the Zhangs’ relatively benign drama of getting home each New Year holiday becomes a potent commentary on the broader cultural significance of rapid industrialization on traditional values of family, caring for elders, and providing a better life for the next generation. Rather than auguring the promise of a new year, the holiday becomes a paradoxical signpost for what has been irreparably lost in the pursuit of progress and economic relief. As Fan poetically remarks during the Q&A on the parents’ enduring sacrifices and hardship for their family, “they burn their candles out so that their children’s light could shine brightly.”

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