‘Last Train Home’ shows toll of Chinese industrialization

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, October 21, 2010 6:31pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

An astonishing human migration, of biblical proportions, occurs every year during the holiday of the lunar New Year in China. It is estimated that upward of 130 million people journey to see family during the break, most of them city factory workers traveling back to the countryside for a treasured taste of home.

This movement is chronicled in “Last Train Home,” a remarkable documentary that becomes far more gripping than most fictional features. Director Lixin Fan follows the travels and travails of a family whose existence has been defined by its separation.

Changhua and Suqin are a middle-age husband and wife who have lived and worked in the factories of Guangzhou for 15 years. They toil in slavelike conditions to make clothes that can be sold cheaply in the West.

Their two children stayed home with their grandmother in the country. Over the course of three migrations, we see the price exacted by this kind of arrangement, especially through the resentment and rebelliousness of their teenage daughter, Qin.

Qin resents her parents for their long absences, a horrible irony, since they’re doing the backbreaking work in order to create something better for Qin than factory work. And yet the factory may be where she is headed, despite everything.

The film succeeds both on this intimate level of family dynamics — which we can multiply in our heads, to measure the toll of China’s recent economic success — and on the level of spectacle.

Lixin Fan takes us through the annual journey, which involves uncomfortable travel and numerous setbacks. In one unbelievable sequence, the family is stranded at a train station with thousands of others, as a train delay makes them wait … for days.

Not wait at a nearby motel, either, but wait on the platform, in all kinds of weather, as thousands of people engaged in the same misery jostle each other in the throng. It’s a terrible display of normal human yearnings and instincts reduced to an economic equation. And it makes you wonder how long a system like that can sustain itself without imploding.

“Last Train Home” ½

Documentary account of a family’s annual migration during the New Year holiday in China, when millions of workers travel from cities to their family homes in the countryside. The scale of that migration is astonishing, but the film also tells a heart-rending story of sacrifice. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter

Showing: Egyptian

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