Posted by: Danielle Destrade | March 1, 2010

Review: ‘Last Train Home’

Photo from TrueFalse.Org

Sunday’s screening of “Last Train Home” felt like the last train for True/False attendees. Before the lights dimmed and the documentary came on the screen, the audience was buzzing with all the energy of the weekend.

After long, cold “Q”s and countless possible combinations of films watched, festival-goers converged at the Missouri Theatre for the official closing night film.

And yet, after the dark settled over everyone, and the opening scenes of “Last Train Home” flickered to life, it was as if it was the first film of the weekend.

The rapt audience was quickly engrossed in the story of one Chinese migrant working family, a story about China in today’s global economy, and about family under financial pressure.

Director Lixin Fan used considerable restraint in his documentary, relying on telling scenes and images to give the viewer a sense of place.

In the first three minutes, Chinese workers stack box after box stamped “Made In China.” And so the story proceeds: The Chinese toil  for about 25 cents per garment in urban factories.

Work is their life. They sleep in dormitories. Yet, once a year, at the Chinese New Year, millions of them board trains, buses and boats for their homes in the countryside — the largest human migration on Earth.

Yet “Last Train Home” is not really about work. Fan, a Chinese citizen, hones in on one family and their struggles. The Zhang family is separated, parents in the city working in a garment factory, children living with their grandmother in the countryside.

The parents risk life and limb fighting the immense crowds at the train station to make the two-day journey home to see their children for just a couple days before returning to work. Yet the reunions are not always easy.

The film highlights universal family moments — discussions about grades, teenage rebellion, sibling rivalry — that make the family’s hardships seem universal, as well as painful.

Fan does not hide his tenderness for his home country, editing in long, sweeping shots of the breathtaking countryside as trains bearing thousands of migrant workers hurtle through.

Yet he doesn’t shy away from the misery that seems to permeate the lives of Chinese “peasants,”as he calls them.

At the beginning of the movie, the Zhangs’ teenage daughter carries an enormous barrel of corn on her back from the fields to her grandmother’s home.

Later, she drops out of school and heads for the city in search of freedom and her own income, yet we see her bearing a different kind of load on her back — this time designer jeans.

She and a friend go shopping, new paychecks burning holes in their pockets, and yet remark that they can’t find the brand they make in Chinese stores. The message is clear: They work for Americans.

“The system is enslaving them,” Fan laments in a Q&A after the screening.

Although signs of hope are nearly absent in “Last Train Home,” the humanity of the Zhang family, their sacrifice and their failings, and even their humor, make it a documentary that lingers on the mind long after the lights have come back on.

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