Last Train Home is a documentary crafted by Lixin Fan and released in 2009. Fan follows three years in the life of a family swimming in the annual labor migration of the Chinese industrial revolution. In many respects, this family presents a non-typical image of modern China. Courtesy of the barbaric One Child policy, the fertility rate of the Chinese mainland has fallen 6 births per woman in 1970 to a low of 1.4 birth per woman in 2010. What is also notable, the first born is a daughter. For variety of reasons, this is not as common as it statistically should be in china. (Freakonomics: Misadventures in Baby Making)
Father and Mother are Zhang Changhua and Chen Suquin, both among the 130 million textile workers who live and work and eat and breathe the factories of Guangzhou (near Hong Kong).Despite the low wages earned in the factory, they are able to save enough Yuan each year to more than offset the earnings of their agricultural options at home. Meanwhile, their children are raised in the agricultural homestead by their grandmother. Last Train Home begins as the parents near the end of their fifteenth year of migrant labor. They work to save enough to send both children to school. Each year, they return home to celebrate the Chinese New Year, duration of one to two months. On each occasion it is an ordeal of immense proportions to journey home by the trains which navigate the Chinese countryside. Fan does a fine job capturing the scope of humanity which travels at this time, comprising nearly 130 million souls headed back home at the same time. To miss the train going home is to miss home entirely for the year.
The first born is Zhang Qin, a daughter of high school age who appears to have nothing but distain for the efforts of her parents and her grandmother. Her coming of age story unfolds with remarkable alacrity and feeling throughout Fan’s work. Her younger brother is struggling academically, and the reasons develop over the years as well. There exists a powerful tension between the three generations, as the young and old clash over ideals and lifestyles. Distance and time spent apart remain enormous obstacles to overcome, and like all families in history, there is no final conclusion to the joys and struggles of life.
The obvious question is never asked, but I will address it here after finding my own answer. Why would this family not move to the city? Due to the hukou of the Chinese political system, the farmer families are unable to access public services beyond their district. The hukou status grants government services to people, provided they remain in the proper place granted to them. These include education, medical care, housing, and pensions. To move into an area where the hukou is not applicable is economic suicide. Wealthy city dwellers are unwilling to debase their hukou benefits and refuse to grant a change in hukou status to migrant families. In consequence, a population comprising nearly 40% of the United States migrates hither and yon on a yearly basis.
Last Train Home is presented only in Mandarin with lively and responsive English subtitling. Before this begins to daunt, consider this: It is rare that you will devote your entire attention to what is on a screen before you, because you can simply turn away and listen to the audio whilst your mind cleverly fills in the void. Not so in Mandarin with English subtitles, as the subtitles require constant attention.
Use your Netflix for good tonight, this is highly recommended viewing.