The documentary opens in Guangzhou International Train Station as a humongous crowd is directed by police to their stations like a herd of sheep. It then informs the audience that an estimated 130 million Chinese citizens make an annual train journey back to their urban villages to celebrate Chinese New Year – “the largest human migration in the world”. As the film pans across the crowd of Chinese civilians holding onto enormous piles of garbage bags and luggage – gifts, clothing or perhaps food for the journey, what it echoes is the physical and extreme socio-economic struggle that hundreds of millions of Chinese people face every day under China’s communist and Marxist government.
The film then centers on Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin who are a married couple. The audience learns that they left their village years ago to find a job so they can financially provide for their children. They find work in a textile factory in Guangzhou. There in the factory, row after row after row, they work all day and night bent over sewing machines, assembling perhaps jeans that I’ve worn before. Their working conditions are cramped, hot, crowded, noisy, dirty and dark. Their dormitories have next to no privacy and the married couple shares a room with probably 10 other people.
They save their money and send every penny back home. They eat vegetables and rice every day because that’s the cheapest option and they never indulge in anything for themselves. Their dream is that by 15 years of this toil, they will pay for the children to finish school and live better lives. For that dream, they have sacrificed the life of parenthood, and are like strangers at home to children who know them as voices on the telephone, seen on the annual visit.
It’s interesting because this documentary is such a stark contrast between the grandiose Beijing Olympics, the towers of Shanghai, skyscrapers of Hong Kong and the rise of wealth, class and power that China has been experiencing for the past couple of years.
We hear much about how Chinese parents pressure their children to study hard and excel. Overseas, they frequently do succeed. But China is a huge nation, so large that a generation may not be long enough to rise from poverty.
Their daughter, Zhang Qin, is in high school, and comes to regard her parents as distant strangers — and nags. She’s had enough of it. But what she does is beyond heartbreaking, but understanding. She moves to Guangzhou and gets a factory job. She does the math. If she keeps her wages instead of sending them home, she’ll have them to spend on herself. While it’s easy to side with the parents and criticize Qin, I somehow ended up sympathizing with her because I can understand her struggle and the mistakes her parents make and continue to make. While her parents are sacrificing their entire lives for their kids, from her point of view they are basically strangers – she basically raises herself, as her grandmother is clearly very old and not in a position to do much more than feed and clothe them. There is also a gender dynamic that is swept under the rug in both the review and (to a lesser extent) the film itself. There’s a point when the grandmother tells the kids, “Yang (the younger boy) will buy us all a big house.” The look on Zhang Qin’s face says everything- clearly she feels less valued. According to her only adult support, she’s “just” a girl. Also, does Qin not have her own dreams and desires? Her own journey? Her own life to live? Must it be relegated to physical labour with very little reward? Why must she be born in a world of poverty, inequality and struggle with constant nagging from her mother and father about how tough life is and how she must support the family and work hard. Was she conceived merely as a means to help the family or to discover her own happiness and journey in life? Quite simply, she feels like a slave under their parents control.
Furthermore, why did her parents have a child? They must have known before marriage that they couldn’t have financially taken care of their child, yet they made 2. So, why? What was their idea of having a child? To raise them, educate them and show them the beauty of life, or view them as an investment and constantly nag about the importance of education and money so hopefully the children can be rich and take care of their parents?
From the very beginning of showing the children in the documentary, the pressure to succeed and make a lot of money weighs heavily on their minds, even though they’re far too young to be focusing on such matters. Their faces are constantly grim with the realization that their future will be a very tough struggle.
There is so much to say about this great film. It talks about poverty, struggle, the pressures adults put on their children, the importance of education, working hard and never self-indulging. Through those discussions, it also reflects individuality, human needs, wants and desires, freedom, purpose of life and path to happiness. Digging a little further, it passively criticizes the Chinese government, its economic policies and the negative effects of Marxism.
You sense the dedication of Lixin Fan and his team. (He did much of the cinematography and editing himself.) You see once again the alchemy by which a constantly present camera eventually becomes almost unnoticed, as people live their lives before it. You know the generations almost better than they know themselves, because the camera can be in two places and they are usually in one or the other.
There is a quiet moment in a mall. On their day off, Zhang Qin and her friends go shopping. They like a pair of jeans: “Are these made in our factory?” No, in another. Of course they want them. Of course their generation wants them. But their generation doesn’t want to work years leaning over a sewing machine and sleeping in a dorm.
We read about the suicides in Apple’s plants in China. Seeing this film, you suspect there are many suicides among workers in factories whose brands are less famous than Apple. Chinese peasants no longer live without television and a vision of another world. They no longer live in a country without consumer luxuries. “Last Train Home” suggests that the times they are a-changin’. The rulers of China may someday regret that they distributed the works of Marx so generously.