Last Train Home (2011)

Directed by Lixin Fan

Documentaries are often fascinating tales of true human experiences and what makes some of the best, the best, is when the filmmakers happen to be in the right place at the right time. Documentaries cannot be scripted or orchestrated, they must be captured. And even though I know that some documentaries do not follow these guidelines, for the most part they do and that is what makes me so interested in the genre. These real, true stories are often so incredible you can’t believe it is real. Then there are always those documentaries that I come to find are boring because the story is not that interesting. Last Train Home is not one of those films.

Last Train Home is a Chinese film from director Lixin Fan. Fan takes his camera on a journey with one particular Chinese family from the countryside. The family consists of a mother and father and a son and daughter, along with a grandmother. The father and mother work in the city, 2100 km away from their children, who resent the fact that they never see their parents. But the parents do it for their children’s benefit. They work year round so far away so that they can send their earnings home and their children can gain an education in hopes of one day escaping the countryside. What is more is that millions of other Chinese families do the very same thing, taking the train home to their families only once a year, for Chinese New Year.

For an American like myself, maybe I just cannot understand the Chinese cultural phenomenon of leaving your children for their benefit. I understand the motives, but not the means. The parents want their children to live a better life, to get an education and not have to work in the fields or in the factory like they had to do. But the way they go about it doesn’t seem to work, especially for their daughter Qin, who resents and even hates her parents for never being there for her. She says time and again that her grandparents raised her and her parents never did anything for her. But of course they did afford her the opportunity to get her education, but she doesn’t see it like that. The situation with the daughter reminded me a lot of the Beatles song “She’s Leaving Home”, in which a girl leaves home because, even though her parents have seemingly done nothing wrong, and given her everything, they did not afford her the opportunity to have fun and be herself.

Fan does a good job of capturing the drama of this special family dynamic, especially in the scene in which Qin uses a choice curse word towards her father which sets off a startling confrontation. But Fan also gives the film enough context to make the story make sense. He shows you the throngs of people trying to get home, waiting for days to get a ticket and then days again just to get on the train home to see their family for only a few days.

Last Train Home made me think. It made me wonder what the people were thinking behind those quiet eyes and what set the cultural norms in the first place. Why do the parents keep saying that they had “no choice” and “that’s life”? What makes the countryside so bad? Why must they sacrifice not only their own lives and happiness, but their family life simply to make sure their children get out of the countryside and make more money than they did? As Qin says, “all they care about is money.” The film made me wonder about what people truly care about and when enough is enough. Wouldn’t living with your family and working the fields be enough to be happy for a lifetime? I guess not, and I guess that is why Last Train Home was so interesting to me.

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