You’ve probably seen the phrase ‘Made in China’ many times during your life. It might be on the box your TV came in, the wallet you use, or the pair of jeans you’re wearing.
What Lixin Fan’s 2009 documentary does is to investigate the physical origins of that three-word phrase: the industrial towns and factories of present-day China.
Following the tribulations of one family, Last Train Home explores the journeys of peasant workers in the south-eastern Guangdong Province, and delves into the harsh lives of the downtrodden folk who are helping to catapult China into becoming an economic superpower. Parents Suqin Chen and Changhua Zhan work in Guangzhou, an industrial hub, and send all the money they make home to Chen’s grandmother, who takes care of their daughter Qin and son Yang. Travelling home only once a year, they and 200 million other migrant workers battle for train space, only to find that they don’t really know their kids anymore…
In recent years, the sensationalistic documentaries of Michael Moore have grabbed centre stage in the form, but Fan’s movie takes documentarian filmmaking back to its core: these are real lives, totally unvarnished and candidly portrayed. Long panning shots of the near-sweatshop conditions the parents work in, the bucolic countryside their children grow up in and the grim industrial cities millions are forced to live in tellingly show the gulf between China’s two halves; one an unrelenting production line (“we are just a manafacturer” remarks one train passenger) and the other an isolated agricultural milieu.
Nowhere is this gulf more evident than in the train station scenes. As innumerable crowds shove forward, Fan’s camera scrolls slowly across this vast swathe of people as they wait for those precious few places on the trains home. These astounding images are offset by the serenity of the countryside, and the journey itself (which is documented several times in different years) reveals how little China’s view of ‘The West’ has changed. A man checks the basketball scores on his phone, but only does so to make sure China’s star player, Yao Ming, is not injured so that China beats the USA at the Olympics. This paradox between 21st-century technology and 1970s Soviet thinking is utterly bizarre, and only becomes more apparent with each passing minute.
Fan’s un-flashy style befits his subject matter, and although this initially seems like a film about industry, it’s really one about family. Parents and children live completely separate apart from at Chinese New Year, and it becomes increasingly apparent that these two generations of the family really don’t know each other. The children have been raised by their grandparents, and their parents are really strangers: Chen reveals that she left home when Qin was only 1 year old. Qin confesses several times that she really doesn’t like her parents, and it’s clear why: they have no idea how to show compassion. As soon as they arrive home, they immediately enquire about the children’s grades, heaping pressure on them to study instead of supporting them.
Chen and Zhan really don’t know how to be parents: their reasons for leaving are entirely based on love, but spending that much time away from their children has caused a gigantic disconnect. Enforcing parental laws without showing any affection, they have no clue how to encourage their kids, and only lecture with morbidly pessimistic slogans: “You have not tasted the bitterness of life”, Chen tells Qin.
The kids work on the farmland with their grandmother (their grandfather has passed away), who recalls that she left school because “we were called on to farm to help the country, so that’s what we did.”
And herein lies the most fascinating aspect of Fan’s excellent film – the chasm between the older and younger generations of Chinese people. The grandmother is very nationalistic, the parents pessimistic and the children optimistic. Qin wants all the trappings of Western living: she gets an “American” haircut (“all American girls look like Barbie”, the hairdresser remarks), phones her friends and goes out clubbing, but subconsciously she is still trapped in Chinese ideals, spouting Communist mantras like “freedom is happiness”. When Qin leaves school, it’s evident she, like many of her countrymen, wants to sacrifice long-term happiness for short-term fiscal gain, and is gradually coaxed home by her father’s visits to her room near the factory she works in.
However, the film’s final act does not offer familial reconciliation, but a bleak conclusion. 21st-Century kids are being raised by 1960s parents, and nowhere is this clearer than in the shocking scene where Qin argues with her father. After using the work ‘fuck’, she is physically beaten by Zhan, and then hit again for re-using the swearword. This unbelievably backwards and horrifying tableau hammers home Fan’s message: China is really now a nation of halves, whether it’s industry vs. farming or father vs. daughter.
Running at a slender 85 minutes, it would seem that Fan tries to cram in too much, but his film is brilliant. For all his atmospheric excellence, however, more interviews with the people involved would be fascinating, especially Yang, the younger brother caught between parents and sister, who barely gets a word in edgeways throughout. Similarly, tales of the grandmother’s hard life would be worthy of inclusion, but even without these, it’s still a really interesting watch.
8/10: Telling the story of an entire nation through one family, this is an accomplished documentary detailing not only physical journeying, but emotional disconnection, the poor’s subjugation, and family dissolution. An illuminating picture which pulls no punches, and whose subject matter could hardly be more pertinent in the current climate, Last Train Home might not have the flash of Michael Moore, but it’s got the investigative heart of Bob Woodward. Fascinating stuff.