Good documentaries have the ability to not only inform but cause you to think. Some will take a person’s everyday life and draw out what makes that individual unique. Some tell hidden, behind the scenes stories of well-known events or people. Many give personal testimonies to major wars, tragedies, or disasters. Others take us to parts of the world we have never seen and show us things we’ve never known. In other words, there’s a lot we can take from a well conceived and well executed documentary.
“Last Train Home” is a documentary that follows the Zhang family. Like many others, each year the Zhangs leave their remote Chinese village to work in a Guangzhou garment factory in order to provide for their family. Their young children are left behind to be raised by their grandparents. During the spring the parents, and nearly 130 million others like them, try to leave the city and get home to celebrate the Chinese New Year’s holiday. It’s the world’s largest mass human migration and one of the most strenuous and difficult times for Chinese cities. For the Zhangs, it’s a chaotic and arduous 1,000 mile trip by train, boat, and foot.
Director Lixin Fan documents the Zhang’s journeys over several years and not only shows the strenuous nature of their traveling but the crippling effects their absence is having on their children. As the film dives more into the family dynamic we see the animosity and resentment growing inside their daughter Qin who is weighing whether to stay in school according to her parents wishes or leave for the work force as many classmates have done. This leads to some of the films more heart-wrenching moments as Qin and her parents clash over her decisions. Lixin Fan never backs away from tension and realism of these moments and while these scenes are quite compelling, they can also be sad and disturbing.
I was also enamored with the film’s cinematography. The camera is allowed a freedom to capture some of the movie’s more powerful moments while also effectively using a variety of creative angles. The movie also features some of the most gorgeous shots from the Chinese countryside you will find. The camera moves the audience from scenes of mass chaos to beautiful shots of different landscapes.
Last Train Home is a gripping documentary that reveals the depressing inadequacies of China’s social and financial structure. It reveals a genuine conflict between the country’s past and it’s more modern future. It also delivers an unapologetic message and never worries about showing the consequences of such a faulty system. It does stumble in a few spots and there were times I was confused about the chronology of events. But these are minor gripes. This is an emotional and honest picture that does a lot to reveal and inform. It’s an easy documentary to recommend.