A few days ago, Frits van Paaschen, CEO of Starwood Hotels, went on CNBC to tout his company’s growth story. One of the main drivers for future explosive growth will be the “billion or more” people throughout the world who are graduating from a lifetime of poverty to a middle class existence with the discretionary income so vital to multinational interests. By billions, he could only be referring to India and China, whose massive GDP growth has made headlines for the better part of the new millennium. For top-down investors and economists, this expansion in the two most populous countries in the world represents a tectonic shift in the world economy.
This is undoubtedly true, but Mr. van Paaschen’s implied thesis that the working class in either nation will reap the same benefits as the corporate elite is more questionable. Perhaps wealth will eventually trickle down to Chinese migrant workers in ways it hasn’t for the poor in America, but the safer bet is to assume it’s the execs at Baidu and China Mobile who will be making it rain in swank Starwood suites as the Chinese tide lifts only the biggest boats.
Certainly the Zhangs, the couple at the center of “Last Train Home,” aren’t likely to be renting a room at the Beijing Four Seasons any time soon. Like many Chinese workers over the past 30 years, they have been forced to move from their rural homes in the north and west to the industrial cities in eastern China to find work. They send most of their earnings home every month to help support their children, a young son and their teenage daughter Qin.
A good chunk of the meager savings they squirrel away each year goes to paying for a train ticket back home (a 2100 kilmoter trip NW) for the Chinese New Year, a trip also taken by many of their fellow workers. According to the film’s director Lixin Fan, over 130 million Chinese workers make this annual trip back home, making it the largest human migration in the world.
Fan’s film has two primary focal points. First is the journey home, a mini-epic unto itself which involves navigating through a mass of humanity crowded into stations where people wait for as long as a week (or perhaps even more) to buy a scarce train ticket. Fan and his camera crew are almost swallowed up several times as they try to track alongside the Zhangs in a scene reminiscent of the chaos of “Medium Cool.” Long shots of the crowd only hint at the sheer scope of this mass exodus and also provide the film its most beautiful shots as multi-colored umbrellas twirl above the swarms of faceless people.
Back home, the Zhangs discover that while their lives revolve around their children, the opposite may not be true. For Qin, her parents exist only through monthly paychecks and letters, and she feels more affinity towards the grandmother who has raised her. It also appears that granny may have spoiled her darling girl. Qin is in her full-on rebellious phase which sparks some of the film’s most harrowing scenes, including a violent confrontation between father and daughter over her repeated use of the F-bomb.
“Last Train Home” takes place over a few years and the generational rift only grows wider. When Qin drops out of school to work in a textile factory and later in a restaurant, the rosy vision of Mr. van Paaschen becomes downright laughable, though nobody is laughing by the time the 2008 global recession hits Chinese industry, or rather the already impoverished workers unceremoniously put out of jobs. Execs at Baidu and China Mobile were reportedly uninjured in the accident.
Both parents and daughter are vibrant characters, and some moments in “Last Train Home” are so perfect that it’s hard not to suspect they are staged. It’s certainly a trick that the great filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke has used in his films, but I have no idea whether Fan has followed Jia’s example. Regardless, “Last Train Home” is a moving film that succeeds both on a macro level and as a portrait of a single family struggling with problems both universal and specific to their time and place.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is quite strong, especially considering the film was shot on DV with handheld cameras in tight quarters and whatever natural light was available. Perhaps in a high-def transfer, we would be able to make out more detail in the faces of people in the crowd scenes, but this standard definition transfer is a very good one.
The film is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. There’s quite a depth of sound in the crowd scenes and this mix preserves them well. These sequences create the feeling of immersion which I guess makes sense considering how these camera and sound crews had to fight just to stay close to the action. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The DVD includes 11 minutes of Deleted scenes and a Travelogue (5 min.) depicting the train trip from Guang’da to Shenzhen City as well as a bit of New Year’s celebration. The U.S. Theatrical Trailer is also included.
The insert booklet features an interview with director Lixin Fan.
Certainly recent years have brought several films that call the Chinese economic miracle into question, from the rampant pollution on display in Jennifer Baichwal’s wonderful “Manufactured Landscapes,” or the displacement (both physical and economical) experienced by characters in Jia’s fictional “Still Life” (and its documentary counterpart “Dong”) and Yung Chang’s documentary “Up the Yangtze” (on which Fan worked as associate producer and soundman). “Last Train Home” is another fine entrant in this emerging sub-genre, and is certainly one of the best films of 2010.