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Last Train Home
Directed by Lixin Fan (2009)
Howard Schumann (howard16)     Print Article 
Published 2010-03-15 13:37 (KST)   
Howard Schumann rates "The Last Train Home" a B+.  <Editor's Note>
While the problem of migrant workers exists all over the world, in China the problem is particularly acute.

According to Chinese government statistics, the current number of migrant workers in China is estimated at 130 million, approximately 9% of the population. Migrant workers' working and living conditions in the cities are precarious. Most unskilled laborers work ten to twelve hour days and have only one or two days off a month. They receive no benefits, pensions, or health insurance.

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Last Train Home
Until recently the children of migrant workers were kept out of urban schools, so most migrant workers leave their children at home in the countryside. They grow up there with grandparents or other relatives and grow estranged from their parents, often seeing them only once a year, usually during the Chinese New Year. Despite these many problems, the migrant workers continue to come to the cities, because for many, staying in the villages is no longer an alternative.

Lixin Fan's revealing documentary Last Train Home is not a film about economics but about humanity and the personal toll families of migrant workers must endure. "Last Train Home" is the first documentary for Fan, who worked as associate producer on the acclaimed film "Up the Yangtze" and as editor on "To Live Is Better Than To Die", about AIDS in China. The film focuses on five members of the Zhang family whom the director met when touring a denim factory in Guangdong province, shooting 300 hours of footage over a period of several years as he became almost a member of the family.

Fan reveals that the Zhang's left their home in the countryside sixteen years ago just after the birth of their daughter to work in the factories of Guangdong province, making cheap goods for the West and only return home once a year for a few days during New Year. Along with 140 million other migrant workers, this is often the only occasion in which they can spend time with their children and parents.

The story is about the Zhang's attempt to leave the city to journey to their countryside home while having to fight the inhuman crush of workers who crowd into Guangdong's dirty railway station to secure tickets. It is not a pretty picture.

The trip covers more than 2,000 kilometers and it is an exhausting and stressful journey by train, bus, and ferry. When they finally arrive, they are able to spend only a few days with their son Yang (10) and daughter Qin (17), who have grown up under the care of their grandparents and who they hardly know. During the last ten years, Qin has become resentful at never seeing her parents, even though the economic necessity of the arrangement is self-evident.

The parents' only conversation is to tell the children to study hard but they show no interest in what they are studying or exploring with them their areas of weakness. In a rebellious frame of mind, Qin decides to leave school and go to work in a factory just like her parents, thinking that that is the path to freedom.

During one visit, adolescent acting out together with lack of parenting skills erupt into an ugly physical confrontation between father and daughter over her use of the "f" word, an altercation that could have easily been avoided if either one had shown some emotional maturity. "It was totally unexpected and just happened after this long train ride," Fan says. "I was actually in the next room changing a light bulb and heard a shout. It was a very tough moment because we were so emotionally attached by that point. But it reveals so much of the conflict in this family and how it's an inevitable result of this society and this time, and how this big nation is just dashing towards modernity."

"Last Train Home" was shown at the Guangzhou Documentary Film Festival last year and it was an emotional experience. The young audience, many of them students, loved the film. One boy said he couldn't stop crying during the screening -- it was like seeing his own life on screen. His older sister, he said, had to give up school and go to work in the factory so he could continue studying. While the Zhang family shows much determination and resilience, their story has basically little upside to it. In exploring the dark side of the Chinese economic miracle, "Last Train Home" has plenty of tunnels along the journey but little light at their end.
©2010 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Howard Schumann

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