Lixin Fan opens his debut documentary feature, Last Train Home, with an overhead shot of Chinese migrant workers gathered by the thousands outside a railway station, hoping to get tickets so they can head home for the New Year’s holiday. Then Lixin narrows his focus to one married couple: Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin, who have to wait days and pay triple the regular fare to take a steamy, crowded, two-day train ride back to their village, where their teenage daughter Qin and pre-teen son Yang live with their grandmother. During the few days they have with their kids each year, Changhua and Suqin have to deliver as many life lessons as they can about the value of hard work and studying, and they have to leave behind enough money and material goods to remind their family why they always leave. But Yang and Qin are like growing children everywhere: they doubt their parents really know what they’re doing.
Last Train Home is partly an indictment of the government policies that lure cheap laborers to the cities but discourage them from bringing their families, and partly a story about what happens when Qin decides to drop out of school and move to a city herself, to work in a factory and be with kids her own age. Lixin plays up the atmospheric underclass misery in service of a beautifully shot, heartbreaking vérité narrative about generation gaps and culture clashes. In fact, sometimes the story is so much like a fiction feature—complete with explosive family arguments and pointed cross-cutting between the free-spirited Qin and her beaten-down folks—that it feels exploitative, as though Lixin were turning real people into characters.
But the cumulative power of Last Train Home’s images and conversations overcomes any qualms about how they came to be. It’s fascinating to watch these workers in their rare moments of leisure, talking about the upcoming Olympics, or making fun of the wide waistlines in the American blue jeans they’re making. And it’s painful to watch Qin weeping in the woods as she talks to the spirit of her dead grandfather about how much she hates her folks. As Lixin returns to footage of workers trying to keep track of each other in crowded streets, where policemen erect barricades and block people off at a moment’s notice, it’s evident that there are times and places where it’s easier to be alone than to be burdened with love.