China's coming maelstrom of cultural tension is a central theme in Chinese/Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan's Last Train Home, a gritty, verite-style documentary about a family struggling to adapt to its country's evolving, increasingly globalized economy.
Lixin fixes his narrative (and inquisitive hand-held camera) on a married couple, Changhua and Suqin Zhang, onetime rural farmers who have worked grueling garment factory jobs far away from home for nearly the whole of their 17-year-old daughter Qin's life. The couple can afford to visit Qin, as well as their 13-year-old son and the grandmother who takes care of the pair, but just once annually — which happens to be when 130 million of their fellow migrant workers also journey home each spring to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
The mass migration is a logistical nightmare, as thousands of poor Chinese, often herded like cattle by affectless military personnel, wait as long as a week to board dangerously overstuffed trains and buses.
While China's transition from its rural past to its industrialized future is ripe for overarching investigation, Lixin personalizes the topic by focusing on this single family's growing internal tension. Qin has long resented her parents, taking their absence as a sign that they don't really care for her. Her parents insist the opposite is true — they left to make money so Qin can get the education that would be her best chance to elude their fate.
Lixin presents it all with impressive, often poetic restraint: little musical score, no narration, few graphics, spare editing, no archival footage. Yet, by Last Train Home's open-ended finale, one yearns for a little less poetry and a little more context. Grade: B
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