This is inevitable: Painful social conflict will arise between those Chinese citizens who produce consumer goods for the world, and those Chinese who want to consume them. “Last Train Home,” an extraordinary documentary, watches that conflict play out over a period of three years in one family. It's one of those extraordinary films, like “Hoop Dreams,” that tells a story the makers could not possibly have anticipated in advance. It works like stunning, grieving fiction.
The film opens like a big-picture documentary, showing us a huge crowd being directed by police as it grinds its way forward. We are informed that these are some of the 130 million Chinese citizens who make an annual train journey from urban centers to their provincial villages — “the largest human migration in the world.” Umbrellas of every description protect them. They carry enormous bundles — gifts, perhaps, or food for the journey. They're headed home for the Chinese New Year.
We gradually center on Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin, a married couple. Years ago, they left their home in the Szechuan province to take low-paying jobs in a textile factory in Guangzhou, which is the huge industrial city on the mainland next to Hong Kong. Here, in row after row, they work bent over sewing machines, assembling perhaps the jeans I'm wearing right now. They live in dormitories — married adults, with next to no privacy.
They save every yuan they can to send home. They left their children behind to be raised by a grandmother. Their dream is that by 15 years of this toil, they will pay for the children to finish school and live better lives. For that dream, they have sacrificed the life of parenthood, and are like strangers at home to children who know them as voices on the telephone, seen on the annual visit.
This is a reality Dickens could hardly have imagined. The fruit of their toil has contributed to China's emergence as a global economic power. But their lives are a grim contrast to the glittering Beijing of the Olympics, the towers of Shanghai, the affluent new business class. And here is the part you may sense coming: Are their children grateful for what amounts to the sacrifice of two lifetimes?