If its rapid modernization and ever-expanding economy have focused more and more international attention on China in recent years, then that country’s filmmakers have used the occasion to craft an imposing national cinema, charting not only the nation’s progress, but the human cost of a changing way of life. While Jia Zhang-ke (understandably) gets much of the acclaim from American critics, the Platform director is far from the only important Chinese filmmaker taking on his country’s recent history. Wang Bing’s legendary nine-hour documentary West of the Tracks, for example, details the decline of a formerly vibrant industrial center, while Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town—one of the highlights of last year’s New York Film Festival—charts the desolation wrought by a shifting economic base that leaves certain areas of the country impoverished while the coastal cities thrive.
It may not achieve the epic heights of the aforementioned films, but Lixin Fan’s doc Last Train Home is just as effective at making palpable the displacements wrought by this population shift. Trading durational heft for candid immediacy, Lixin uses the annual migration of workers back to their hometown to stand in for the country’s wrenching dislocations. Focusing on a single family, the Zhangs, the film traces their plight through several years and several thousand miles as they move back and forth between the industrial cities where they work and their rural birthplace.
As an introductory title informs us, China’s 130 million migrant workers nearly all return home exactly once a year during the New Year’s holiday, leading to the world’s largest human migration, and the film opens with Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin desperately trying to secure highly sought after train tickets. Having left their native Sichuan province shortly after the birth of their daughter, Qin, some 16 years earlier for a position in an urban garment factory, the couple only sees their family for a few days each February. Not surprisingly, their daughter, in high school at the film’s beginning, feels little attachment to her parents. When they finally make it home for a visit, they admonish her to stay in school. Shortly after, she drops out and begins a career as a factory worker.
Alternating fixed, self-consciously framed shots with ragged handheld camerawork, Lixin captures both the beauty of the film’s rural and industrial settings and the fevered chaos of the family’s public and domestic crises. While an overhead shot of a group of thousands of tightly packed workers lining up in the rain turns the masses into a lovely abstraction, their umbrellas adding patches of color to an otherwise monochrome painting, later ground-level shots capture with astonishing immediacy the confusion and desperation of the crowds forced to stand for days, waiting for the train after a snowstorm in another part of the country has knocked out the power grids. Similarly, while lightly ironic overhead shots of the family’s rural village suggest a pastoral beauty with the just visible deterioration of the buildings the only sign of difficulty, when Lixin places his camera at the family center, things seem far less idyllic.
In the film’s wrenching centerpiece, after Qin’s parents have succeeded in bringing her home for the New Year’s holiday, she gets into a heated argument with her father that leads to her uttering the word “fuck.” Incensed by her use of the expletive, he turns to physical violence, which leads to a somewhat lengthy physical exchange between the two. At stake in the encounter is the issue of filial piety, which the father feels has been violated. While the question of respect for one’s parents has traditionally guided domestic relations in China (Qin’s grandmother is earlier heard espousing these same values), with the familial displacements of the contemporary country, such models no longer have the same viability. How is Qin expected to espouse undying respect for a man she barely knows?
Also at play in this scene is the question of authorial involvement. Lixin’s approach in the film has been to withhold direct commentary, either in the form of narration or on-screen interviews with his subjects. His viewpoint comes through in his shaping of the material, particularly in some of his pointed juxtapositions, but he never explicitly addresses the camera’s ability to either influence the action or, potentially, exploit the actors. Then, in the middle of the violent exchange with her father, Qin breaks the fourth wall, turning to the camera and angrily declaring, “You want to film the real me? This is the real me.” Lixin’s film had been notable for the human face it brought to such global questions as shifting economics and the resultant demographic displacements, but it’s still been easy to distance ourselves from the subjects, particularly in the work’s more explicitly aestheticized moments. As Qin confronts us directly, questioning our own privileged position, such distance suddenly becomes impossible.