Going off the rails

Lixin Fan’s documentary film Last Train Home is many things: an exploration of China’s migrant worker culture, a study in multinational economics and a contemplation of the struggle between work and leisure.

But most importantly, it is a beautiful look at a family attempting to stay together under unimaginably difficult conditions.

Seqin and Changhua are two out of 130 million migrant workers in China. They spend most of the year living away from home, only returning for a few days during the Chinese New Year celebrations. This is done to ensure that their two children, who are raised by their grandmother, are able to stay in school, and will have a better chance of escaping the peasant life.

The suffering associated with this sort of existence is well documented by Fan, who spent years with the family. He achingly captures the parents’ heartbreak when they hear that their eldest daughter has left school in order to work, as well as the violent eruption that takes place when the normally reserved father can no longer abide the same daughter’s disrespect for her parents and the sacrifice they’ve made.

In a poignant scene, the grandmother tells the children that it is important to taste bitterness in order to fully appreciate the sweetness of life.

Fan’s film captures the bitterness of this family’s struggle so well that we are left wondering, as the credits roll, whether the sweetness will ever arrive.

Published in Volume 64, Number 26 of The Uniter (May 27, 2010)

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