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Friday, 05 November 2010 18:11

This train roars through China

This train roars through China
Written by Diane Carson
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Chinese director Lixin Fan's documentary Last Train Home is thoroughly absorbing and completely heart breaking. After a high angle pan across a sea of people, followed by an eye-level shot of masses surging forward, superimposed titles announce: "There are over 130 million migrant workers in China."

It continues, "They go home only once a year during Chinese New Year. This is the world's largest human migration." Last Train Home then focuses on one of these millions of Chinese families, husband Zhan Changhua and wife Chen Suqin, who work in a textile factory over a thousand kilometers from their Sichuan province village.

To say that their lives are difficult is a gross understatement. Fifteen years ago they decided that their daughter Qin and her younger brother Yang would have more opportunities if the parents could afford better education for them. The grandmother lovingly cares for them. But the Confucian values and the self-sacrifice of Zhan and Chen collide with modern and modernizing China. Qin, in particular, resents her parents having left. One confrontation with them involving cursing and physical violence is particularly upsetting. We've witnessed Zhan and Chen's miserable work environment and their nightmarish trip home, but Qin has no gratitude or respect for their choices.

Over the three years of the film's documenting this family, Qin adds insult to injury, leaving school to work in a factory herself over her parents' protests. The son's grades slip lower, with the landscape of the mother's face, in particular, registering distress.

In contrast to their painful reality, Fan's cinematography shows beautiful landscapes. Moreover, he captures astonishing shots in the train stations, on the trains, and in the factories. He seems everywhere at once, crammed into extremely small spaces and yet able to shoot perfect, illustrative footage. Fan also edited some of the scenes, a clearly multi-talented director reflecting changes transforming China and the impact, with profound empathy.

Last Train Home also includes several brief exchanges that touch on foreign markets. A young man on the train talks with Zhang about the tennis rackets they manufacture, noting that none have Chinese labels, all are Prince, Head, etc. This fine documentary takes place thousands of miles away, but it makes the world feel very small indeed. In Mandarin and Sichuan dialect with English subtitles. At Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

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