Wilhem Oliva

by: Wilhem Oliva
March 24th, 2010

Rating: 9/10

Director: Lixin Fan
Cast: Changhua Zhang, Sugin Zhang

I got the opportunity to see a lot of amazing films at SXSW and for that I feel very fortunate. I don’t think I could begin to assign a numerical value to all of the movies I saw, but I can tell you that if I did, LAST TRAIN HOME would be near the top.

There’s always been a special place in my heart for documentaries because they command a power of authenticity rarely found in narrative films. A narrative film can try to be as true to life as possible, but documentaries are life; and every once in a while, one comes along that introduces you to a world you didn’t even know existed. That is the case with LAST TRAIN HOME.

The film tells the story of the largest human migration on earth, which happens in China every year during the Chinese New Year, as more than 130 million migrant workers make their way home to be with their families. But the film focuses on a single family. Changhua and Sugin Zhang are a couple working in a sewing factory, living 2,000 miles away from a home they first left 16 years ago and only visit during the holidays.

You would expect that a story about a family living on the other side of the planet would feel foreign to me, but the exact opposite is true, and this is in large part to director Lixin Fan who also took care of the cinematography. The factories are small and cramped, but he used that to his advantage, creating an intimate, fly-on-the-wall feeling. It’s as though the only people present are you and the character, the cameras disappear.

In fact, since I was unaware of exactly what the movie was about when I sat down, for about the first five minutes I actually thought it was a dramatic film done in the style of a documentary. Some of Fan’s shots are so beautifully crafted and lit, that they actually bugged me a bit when I realized it really was a documentary.

The pacing of the film is also perfect, allowing the audience to identify with the characters by splitting the film into three segments, each of which builds upon the previous one.

In the first segment, we follow the parents and the kids back home, mainly their teenage daughter Qin. It’s obvious that their jobs have taken a toll on their relationship. This first part also gives us a glimpse at the mass migration, as an overhead shot fills the screen with thousands of heads slowly making their way to a train station, and the parents struggle to get tickets.

The second segment, though, is the most important, fleshing out the relationships and showing us just how bad it can get for migrants trying to get home. Qin decides to leave home to work in the factories and, once again, Fan’s intimate camera comes into play. Qin and her parents go to separate factories and he photographs them in such a way that you can see their hearts breaking for their little girl, who is living the life they never wanted for her.

The mass migration, which we only caught for a glimpse previously, becomes a harsh reality in this segment. It contains about 15 minutes in a crowd of thousands of people pushing and shoving each other to find a train, really giving you a sense of what these people go through every year.

Once home, it culminates in a violent fight between the daughter and her quiet father, which obviously catches the film crew off guard. Any sense that you are a fly on the wall is disrupted as Qin yells at the camera crew. It is the best, most honest moment in the film and I’m glad Lixin Fan kept it even though goes against the flow of the movie. The third and final segment follows the aftermath, as Qin and her parents return to the factories.

By the time the credits roll, two years have gone by in the lives of the Zhang family and I felt so close to them that I was angry that there was no title card explaining what happened to everyone after filming stopped.

In his directorial debut, Lixin Fan showed that he is a masterful director, able to balance years-worth of footage into a very personal story. I cannot say enough about Fan’s cinematography, which is both artistically beautiful and intimate whether he’s photographing the Chinese landscape or a dining room table. You would think that he would’ve had a hard time finding the perfect family to follow since he had millions to choose from, but in the Zhangs he found the perfect subjects to tell both the story of the migrant workers and a story that is immediately universal to anyone watching. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.


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