Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Filmmaker Lixin Fan served as a producer on the remarkable documentary Up the Yangtze, and he continues with much that same style with his directorial debut Last Train Home. It's a fascinating, heartbreaking attempt to capture both the overwhelming hugeness and harsh growing pains of China's exploding economy, by focusing on one family.
For over a decade, the Zhangs have worked in a big city factory and returned to their rural home only once a year, for Chinese New Year. According to the film, about 130 million Chinese in the same situation make a similar journey at the same time, making it the largest human migration in history. This, of course, makes for a nightmarish journey, including hard-to-get train tickets, cramped quarters and flared tempers.
At home, the Zhangs greet their teen daughter and younger son, and the grandmother who cares for them full-time. The parents operate under the belief that their sacrifice and toil makes a better life for their kids, but daughter Qin has begun to resent them. Money is one thing, but she feels abandoned, growing up with parents who are never there. Rather than going to school like a good girl, she storms out in anger and gets her own factory job. She then takes the money and spends it on herself.
Fan divides the film's running time between the massive migration and the smaller family drama, which, we assume, must be very much like millions of other family dramas. He has an eye for visual detail, filling the frame with striking images at all times. He seems to get his camera into the most unlikely places, such as inside the marauding crowds at the train station, or inside the train itself. It led me to ask certain questions about the filmmaker, who deliberately tries to remain invisible. How did he secure tickets for the train? How many of these shots are staged? At one point, the father, Yang, leaves the train station, and the camera trails after him, as if he had just given up. A minute later, we cut to outside the station, and the camera is in front of him. This suggests that the shot was staged, that the director asked Yang to stop walking for a few minutes while he set up a new shot.
In this, the filmmaking is not as invisible as it wants to be, and it can detract from the story. Yet in another scene, Yang slaps Qin (who has just dropped an "f" bomb in front of her parents). In tears, she turns to the camera and screams at it, "You want to film the real me? This is the real me!" Fan's camera does not blink, and silently holds the shot for a while longer. This family may have known they were being filmed, and agreed to certain shots, but their pain is very much real.
Zeitgeist released the DVD (no Blu-Ray), with just a few extras. There are about 11 minutes of deleted and/or extended scenes, a "travelogue" (5 minutes), and a trailer. The liner notes include a Q&A with director Lixin Fan.
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