Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tracking the plight of Chinese migrant workers: Lixin Fan's LAST TRAIN HOME

"Teeming hordes," as shown in the photograph above, have seldom taken on more meaning than they do in the new documentary LAST TRAIN HOME, which explores, via one particular family, the situation of migrant workers in China. These are Chinese workers, by the way -- not foreigners -- so if you want to observe yet another example of how the country with the world's largest population treats its own people, step right up.

Annually, for the Chinese New Year, these workers -- 130,000,000 of them scattered throughout the country in big-city factories -- make the long trek home, usually to the poorer rural villages, to spend the holiday with their families. (This is the only time in the entire year that they are able to be together.)  The film's director Lixin Fan (shown below) also worked on the award-winning documentary Up the Yangtze, which gave us yet another unpleasant slice of the Chinese pie. That 2008 film dealt with a different set of migrant workers and the population rendered homeless by the Three Gorges Dam, and Mr.Fan -- a documentarian with a clear and focused agenda -- is back again taking another look at Chinese social issues.

The family in the focus of Fan's lens is made up of a grandmother and two grandchildren, left behind in the countryside (below) when mom and pop went to work, years back, at a factory one very long train trip away. The daughter, by now angry and rebellious, is at an age at which she can decide between remaining in school or going to work in a factory, too. You will not be surprised at her choice, or that her younger brother remains behind with granny. The once-a-year reunions are becoming, from what we see here, increasingly fraught with buried anger that bubbles up often and is growing ever more difficult to hold down.

Fan's camera is relatively unobtrusive, and he manages to show us a number of significant scenes along the way. One of the surprising things about Last Train Home is how much it resembles a narrative film in its breadth, sweep and entry into the lives on display. Watching it, in fact, I occasionally wondered if perhaps it was a narrative that simply made excellent use of the documentary style. But, no.

The filmmaker captures character with a depth that is unusual in a documentary, particularly one in which those characters seem constantly at work or on the run. Mom is a nag (however much she tries not to be), and dad is quietly stoic -- until daughter uses the "f" word in a scene so raw you want to excuse yourself and leave the room.  Here is a family reunion movie that puts to shame many others because that reunion is so brief, sorrowful and full of recrimination, spoken and/or not. Work so completely commands the lives of these people, allowing them little of what we leisured like to call "quality time," that the film cannot help but point up the vast differences between west and east.

Other differences are apparent, too, as workers comment on the very large waist size of the pants shipped off to America.  Yet, as the movie continues, it begins to seem all too universal in its display of the generation gap and how, eventually, children will turn into their parents. Fan contrasts the drab, unappealing look of the cities and factories with some gorgeous shots of the countryside and several more beauties of the train traveling through snowy terrain. Most impressive (and disturbing) are his shots of those teeming hordes waiting for the next train home -- simply procuring a ticket for which can become a trial-by-fire.

Above all, however, the director has captured the fractured lives of China's migrants -- and the abject loneliness of the long-distance worker. In a country where labor is ultra-cheap and expendable, so, too, become the lives of the laborers.

Last Train Home, from Zeitgeist Films, begins its theatrical run this Friday, September 3, at the IFC Center in New York City.  For a foreign-language documentary, the film is receiving, deservedly, a surprisingly wide release. You can find the other playdates, cities and theatrical venues here.

(All photos are courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.)

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