Why do we go to the movies? I expect the reasons vary. Some people may go to be wowed by an interesting plot, spectacular special effects, tight action sequences. Some may go for an escape, wanting to be absorbed in a world other than their own for a little while. Some may go for the company, for a date, for some bonding time with parents, siblings, friends. Some may go out of boredom, loneliness, or both. Some may go to simply see a good movie, a work of art. The cinema never judges.
I have gone for all those reasons, but above all I go to the cinema in search of truth -- truth of others, truth of myself, truth of us all -- for I believe the lens is the most vivid reflection of the beast of human condition as we know it, for it is utterly fascinating, and for a documentary is the truest form of that depiction.
Last Train Home (2009), the debut film by director LiXin Fan, is a stunning documentary about the modern China. It delves inside the prism and observes the phenomenon of Chinese migration workers from rural villages to commercial cities, all through the reflection of a single family. In particular, the title refers to the annual ritual undertaken by more than 130 million Chinese migration workers to travel home for Chinese New Year - the largest annual human migration event in the world. Through it we see the mirroring images of hundreds, thousands, millions of families who harbor the same fears and hopes, struggle with the same dilemmas, and are caught in the same torrent of globalization and commercialization, while grabbing the little pieces they can along the way to make a better life for their families.
These are the most hard-working people you will ever see. These are the most unselfish people you will ever see. They are not heroes. They simply are doing what they must. There are no jobs in the villages they grew up in. Their families strain in poverty. The choice is to stay put and starve, or go away and make money to send home so those left behind can eat. They have no choice. They did not choose to be heroic.
We meet the Zhangs. The mother is Suqin Chen, the father Changhua Zhang. They have two children: a teenage daughter Qin and a younger son Yang. As the film opens we meet Suqin and Changhua as they work in a textile factory in GuangZong, a main coastal export city in China, more than 1000 miles from the village where they grew up. They are two of the millions of migrant workers who leave their rural homes to work in the big cities. Most of them end up in factories and other minimal pay jobs. They work long hours for low pay, live in cramped quarters, and send the bulk of their earnings back home to support the families left behind, which usually consist of the young and the old. Grandparents bring up grandchildren alone in the absence of an entire generation.
Such is the case with the Zhangs. They left the village that they were born in sixteen years ago. While they work in the city, their children are left behind and brought up by their grandmother in the village. We meet Qin as she works in the field and prepares feed for the pigs. "I'm in high school now," she tells us, as she chops a stack of greens too big for her hands to hold together. She restrains the bunch with her left hand and chops with her right, wielding a large knife methodically. Chop. Chop. Her fingers recedes nimbly as the blade forges on mercilessly. She looks up from time to time with an air of abandon, and almost seems angry. Each chop felt like a thud on my insides.
Life in the village is hard and bland, as evident by the simple narration of their day. Qin, Yang and the grandmother work in the fields after school before sitting down at a wooden table for dinner. A few dishes sparsely fill the center, along with bowls of rice. They eat, and the grandmother repeats the purpose of their existence: to work hard and get a better education.
"Taste the bitterness, the sweetness will come after." The grandmother said in encouragement of the grandchildren to eat bitter melon, a vegetable of traditional Chinese cuisine known for its nutritional qualities and unconventional taste (which I never got used to). The grandmother is a simple, good woman who is wise by life. She only wants the best for her children, and their children. "Eat more," she urges, "so you can walk faster." "But fat people can't walk fast," little Yang quips. Ah, the simple truths in life.
Then there are those truths that are harder to see. Changhua and Suqin come home for Chinese New Year and strain to not break down at the New Years Eve meal - the most symbolic and important meal of the year. No one can know the sweats and tears they endured in order to make it home in time, except by now maybe you, the audience. Their children can't comprehend. They see mom and dad who appear like strangers once a year, and remain a distant voice on the phone for its remainder. When they do call or come home, it is filled with incessant attention over their grades. "School is all that matters," they say. "We do this all for you." It is true, but how is a kid who has never worked in a factory, never been outside the village he or she was born in, suppose to appreciate that?
It is all so ironic, and sad, and unavoidable. The sacrifices, the annual cycle. Work. Sleep. TRAIN. Ferry. Walk. Home -- Brief time with loved ones you know too little about -- Walk. Ferry. TRAIN. Work. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat...
"This is life," someone says, "we just hope to save enough money for when we get old."
"My hands are not as fast this year, I can feel it." Suqin says, "Age is unforgiving."
I wish I can say more. I wish I know what to say. Thankfully, the camera already says it all. LiXin Fan holds it steady and calm, and it's as if he's invisible. The people are talking, but not into the camera. They have little moments...small, precious, human moments, where they catch themselves off guard and let a look, a flinch escape. A few seconds later they realize this break in the armor and try to pull their guard up. Fan captures those brief interludes when the curtain is lifted.
And then, there is the train journey. The title of the film is "Last Train Home" and Fan does it justice. He braved the CROWDS - and you have not known the meaning of that word until you have seen this film -- and somehow zoomed in on the humanity amongst the masses. The train station is hell made up of people. So many of them. Each motivated by the most fundamental desire of returning to one's family. They lug heavy bags of goods meant for their families. They wait in the train station for days, a week, even, to get a ticket and then, to get on a train. Most of them are without higher education. Most of them probably won't be able to tell you what is wrong with the situation they are in or how to fix it. Most of them, though, will continue to wait, however long it takes, until they get on that train and get back to their families. In a way, most of them are stronger than most of us.
For many of these migrant workers, their annual journey home is the only thing they can control. Their jobs can disappear in the blink of an eye, as demonstrated by the 2008 economic collapse. They have no safety net. No health insurance or vacation pays. Their children are even further out of their clutches, thousands of kilometers away, trying to grow up on their own terms. Despite the Zhangs' wishes, Qin decides to quit school and become a migrant worker herself in the city. The Zhangs are heartbroken. Their little girl! The only reason for their labour all these years. "I don't want you to become like us," her mother's voice cracking.
But Qin sees a different world. She won't be her mother, but she also won't be the person that her mother wants her to be. Her mother sacrificed her own opportunities so Qin can have hers, except Qin refuses to accept a bargain that she didn't consent to in the first place.
Defiantly, Qin sets out to create her own destiny. This is a determined young girl, on the cusp of womanhood and craving for independence. She drops out of school. She follows a friend's advice to the city and get sucked into the tide that carried her parents. She eats alone after a long day of work. She earns her own money and uses them to go shopping with her friends. She wants to have fun. "To us, freedom is happiness," she says, while crouching and washing clothes by hand on the concrete floor. "Let's go wander the world!" She laughs. Two young girls lay in bed, dreaming. This is you and me.
Meanwhile, her parents are shocked. They blame themselves, for not doing enough, for not spotting the signs earlier, but they can't be in two places at once. They are only human. They plead with their daughter to come back to the village with them for New Years, to stay and go back to school, to change her mind, to have all the good things that they want her to have, to not become themselves. They plead quietly, fighting back tears. Qin listens, the defiance in her eyes blazing. She is only human.
The conflict is profound and ironic. The parents stay away in order to provide better opportunities for their children. The children, growing up without their parents, lack the guidance they need in order to understand and appreciate these better opportunities. The parents are resentful that the children aren't studying hard enough. The children are resentful of the demands of parents who they barely know, and who barely know them. Both sides are losing, and losing each other, and by the time they realize, the gap is too deep to cross. 1000 miles too deep. 16 years too deep.
What is the point of all this? I ask myself after the film. All these struggles...a lifetime spent in toiling...for what? Is it worth it? Whose fault is it? The western companies for creating the demand for migrant workers? The poverty and lack of opportunities in the rural villages? The lackluster mass transportation between the two? The mountains that silently bear witness to the train as it slowly winds through? The snow that covers those mountains and cut off electricity and make the journey that much more precarious? Whose fault is it? Who can we blame?
The truth...well, we all know the truth. It would be so easy to play the blame game, but the easiest thing is often not the real thing, is it?
This is a heartbreaking film. It is a film as much about migration as it is about family, love, sacrifice, rebellion. It's about dreams - dreams of your own, dreams for your children, and your childrens' dreams, one carrying into another, and now conflicting with each other. There are many moments that are so riveting that they seem fictional. They are not. This is human drama, and it is real. Fan resists the urge to embellish and simply allows them to unfold in front of your eyes.
Consider one scene where the mother calls Qin in hope to convince her to come home with them to spend Chinese New Year. As she carefully strings her words together while trying to mask the desperation quivering in her voice, the father stands behind her, listening to the one-way conversation and trying not to look. I'll never forget that look on his face - a mix of worry, despair, hope, and resolution. That is the purpose of his entire life hanging on the other side of that phone line, and there is nothing he can do but stand there watching, waiting, as it slowly slips away.
Another moment is at the train station when a woman carrying a large plastic bag on her back was rescued from the crowd that almost trampled her. She is flushed and crying, her hair a mess. The torrent of people rushes by her, and sobbing still, she wipes her eyes briefly, hauls the bag back on, and wordlessly merges into the crowd. The whole incident takes less than a minute, and like a mere ripple in the pond, she's gone.
The defining moment of the film, though, you will know when you see it. I do not want to spoil it for you, but only to say that it takes place at the Zhang family home in their village, and that for a single second, with the utterance of a single sentence, and a single look straight into the camera, my insides seized, and my breath paused, and I felt like the fourth wall between cinema and reality was broken. I felt like I was staring directly into their lives, and the truth was there, staring right back at me unflinchingly.
Last train home. It labors, carrying thousands and their luggages, sweats, tears, worries, hopes, prayers and dreams -- for a better life, for themselves, for their children.
Last train home. The journey is long, the trip precarious. In the end...where is home? There is only a destination. Perhaps, the most real thing is the push on your back and the squeeze of your sides by those around you. The most real thing is the torrent that you are being carried in, forward, forward, until it melts into the train of dreams. Grace Wang's blog is at e t h e r i e l - m u s i n g s. She Twitters at etherielmusings.