Words by Yazen Al Samen
‘Last Train Home’ is perhaps one of the best documentaries ever made. It is also one of the saddest and most compelling of all films. It makes an arduous struggle out of getting a train ticket. It redefines teenage rebellion and family problems. It is so personal, so simple, and so basic that you get intertwined into the world of these people, yet it manages to bring out a larger scene that is simply extraordinary.
The film centres on the Zhangs, a Chinese family, where the parents work in the industrial city of Guangdong, while their children, Qin and Yang, stay in their village, two thousand miles away, with their grandmother.
The film starts by declaring that what we about to witness is “the largest human migration ever”, as we get told that 130 million Chinese factory workers see their homes once a year (during Chinese new year), and during that time all of those 130 million go back to their homes in the villages all around China to see their loved one, before embarking to work again for another year.
The film was released in 2010, but it’s time spans from about 2005 to 2008’s world financial crisis. It starts by showing us the Zhangs trying to get back to their village for their holiday, as they struggle to find a train ticket amidst all the workers trying to get the trains.
Then we see them in their village, with their children, as we come to know that Qin, their teenage daughter, is delusional with her parents, only coming to regard them as income. She, and her brother and grandmother, only see them once year, and have been for nearly 15 years, that’s when they started working in the city. Qin loves her grandparents more, they raised here while her parents are away, so she takes matters into her own hands, and decides to leave school and go for work herself.
The film takes another level here, but we don’t notice it. It brings us a whole generation of China being tormented by China’s ascent into the elite in the world of economy, and that’s Qin’s generation. Growing without parents, with cynical attitudes, concerned with money only.
The film tries not to assign blame, and you would think that politics would cross your mind during such a movie. But you end up so absorbed and taken by the story of the Zhangs that all those details go out of the window.
The film is a great act of dedication by director Lixin Fan and his crew. They go deep into the miserable lives of the Zhangs and their ilk. They are patient and persistent and blend into the lives of their subjects. They capture moments of immense intimacy and emotion, as when Qin and her father confront each other during one of their meetings during the Chinese New Year, when her parents question her attitude towards them.
It’s fair to say that rarely something as haunting or personal as that scene has been captured on cameras, and it culminates the whole film, as we see a family in tatters over consequences that have risen out of their control, and then seeing them trying to rebuild, somehow.
‘Last Train Home’ is a great example of the power of movies, and the effectiveness of documentaries. Seeing a family like the Zhangs has a unifying power, this is a country that has become the talk of politics and economy in recent years and here we see what lies beneath, to its simple people. This is a great story, told magnificently, by someone who is not there to intrude but to understand and sympathize. This is a haunting movie.