Last Train Home is an arresting film; it grabs you with controversy, slams you with danger and intrigue, and then follows up with a dessert of broken family drama and dislocation, with just enough to send you home with a worried look on your face for those poor Chinese. It is a brave film, one that baffles the mind to wonder how it was actually done, and more so, leaves one wondering how much of an impact it could actually make, given the current focus on China as a theme for the modern world. The tale of a young girl from the countryside trying to find her way, while awkwardly told, is compelling enough to watch until the end. The latter, unfortunately, leaves you only with the bitterness of either a filmmaker who stuck his nose in too deep and caused a young girl to question her family and the values she grew up with, or a realistic issue that has no viable solution.
There is a moment in the film when the young girl, Zhang Qin, looks back at the camera and screams, “You wanted to film the real me? This is the real me!” A moment later she and her father are fist fighting in the family room of their small countryside house, bouncing off the walls and tearing hair. After the brawl, they sit at a dinner table and stare at a boiling vat of hot pot, and the only words are of regret and sadness. It’s obvious the film-maker had a tremendous impact on the family, having followed the parents, the daughter, as well as the grandmother and son around for three years.
The theme of the film is the yearly trip home on the train. What is apparent (as someone living in China for the past seven years) is that the Guangzhou train station is hell on earth during Spring Festival. What is not told, however, is that many other stations are not that chaotic. This is where we begin with the message.
The film begins with the whitewashed statement that during Spring Festival 130 million people travel back to their hometowns, creating the largest human migration in the world. While this is true, it is also misleading, because a moment later the film cuts to a train station where people are stampeding over one another, young women crying because their mothers fell to the ground, and children being lost in the crowd. Part of the issue that isn’t covered is the general design of the station in Guangzhou, which for the last few years has had accidents, partly due to trains not arriving on time, and partly due to station architecture, and finally partly due to security forces mismanaging the crowds.
This is where the message begins. To one who has lived in country for almost ten years, much of these scenes are outrageous. To someone who has not ever set foot in the country, these scenes are criminal, as they attempt to typify the discontent of those having left the country for brighter havens on a national level. While the scenes of stampeding crowds, migrant laborers complaining about the conditions at factories, waitressing at a club, and other images, the film attempts to brand us with an image of sadness and philosophic pedantry. While the life shown is real, what is not shown is the other side – those who yearn for that job in the factory without being grim-faced and forced, the family dinners filled with laughter, music and a post-firecrackers display, the gathering of ideas and food on the long train-ride, and the subtle joy of walking along the road while the festivities of the holiday roar around you.
Last Train Home is generally a biopic of a young girl and her relationship with her parents. The advertising for the film is misleading, and really does not explain much about the Spring Festival Train-craze anymore than a backyard DVD blurb could do. As for the depth into the lives of those involved, it barely scratches the surface, lending itself more as a diatribe of complaints about a life not lived than a living history. The film gives ample opportunities to not only the family but also other observers, to lash out their discontent of their lives on camera. Who wouldn’t want a chance to do that? Rather than showing us both the beauty and tragedy of the life of a migrant worker, the film centers on the immediate murk that surrounds Zhang Qin and tries to elevate her simple life to the melody of the tragic heroine suffering under a society that cares nothing for her. For much of the film, however, she seems like a rather unreliable witness for her society, more akin to being part of the 月光社 (Moonlight Clan) than being a custodian for criticism into modern Chinese policies.
On the other hand, the bravery of the film-maker is tantamount to challenging the very face of the government. However, while Mr. Fan and Mr. Cross managed to somehow elude the Cultural Guard, the film still teeters dangerously towards sensationalism and stereotypical bashing of management in mainland China, which seems all too frequent in Chinese dissidents. Furthermore, the plight of Zhang Qin is not iconic, but represents a fraction of what is happening in China. That is to say, her story should be told, but more education to the audience was needed that the film just did not give. That is in part on the laziness of the directors and at the same time their desire for craft a piece that would cause noble cries of anguish in their audience rather than a careful consideration of the balancing line.