Bullet Train – The human cost of Chinese expansion on display in new doc

EyeSteelFilm Photos
EyeSteelFilm Photos

If “The Last Train Home” is reminiscent of “Up the Yangtze,” another film about the social upheavals following the wake of China’s economic transformation, that’s because director Lixin Fan worked as associate producer, sound recordist and translator on that film. Now stepping into the director’s shoes, Lixin brings us a story of the New Year’s Holiday migration in China, where 120 million workers get time off to return home to their families.

The scene, as we see at the beginning, is chaos, like something out of a disaster movie, with crowd upon crowd trying to get a ticket, cramming onto trains, and heading back into the countryside. Some wait so long to get a ticket and live so far away that if they ever reach their destination it’s time to go back.

Chinese migrant workers jam a Guangzhou train station in a scene from the documentary "Last Train Home."
Chinese migrant workers jam a Guangzhou train station in a scene from the documentary “Last Train Home.”
Fan focuses on one family, the Zhangs, who are in a pretty typical but terrible situation. They left their two children back in the countryside to be raised by their grandparents while they went into the city to work and send money home. Chen Suqin and her husband Zhang Changhua work in a textile factory sewing clothes for export. (Attention Wal-Mart shoppers! Meet your tailor!) Back in the countryside, their daughter Qin and their son Yang are supposed to be staying in school with the money they receive — a good education will hopefully bring them out of poverty.

But Qin, and in some cases Yang, feel no connection with their parents who they see once a year. When the parents do return, they get platitudes about staying in school and how being fifth in class is not as good as being first. Plus Qin has ideas of her own. Ironically, she leaves for the big city to work in a factory, living in dorms with many other girls, then spending her money at the mall. When the holiday arrives, the parents try to convince Qin to return back home and finish school.

Fan shoots all of this like a fiction film, gaining incredible access to the most private moments. (Did he sleep next to the father and mother in order to get their bedtime conversations?) Only once does the splintering family acknowledge the camera, and it comes in a grim scene where Qin’s resentment finally boils over.

“The Last Train Home” suffers in Fan’s choice of family, however. Neither the father or mother have much of interest to say. The father is silent for most of the film, and the wife repeats her suggestions endlessly. And Qin’s miserable nature blankets the whole film. We don’t get any further past this, which “Up the Yangtze” did with its family, creating rounded characters.

“Money is everything,” says one character, and China’s growth at the expense of everything else bears that out. The cost for this one family is already too much, as migrant workers like themselves slave away without benefits, pensions, or health insurance. The cost for the country as a whole as it rushes headlong into modernity, from the environment to social traditions, is enormous.

Length: 90 minutes
Where: UCSB Campbell Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Cost: $5 UCSB students, $6 general

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