Sundance Review: Last Train Home

Last Train Home is the most recent film from EyeSteelFilm who are just hitting it out of the park with one great documentary after the other. They made one of my favourite documentaries of last year, Antoine, which I highly recommend checking out and the hugely successful, and extremely fun, RiP: A Remix Manifesto. Add to that the multiple award-winning Up the Yangtze and they are a force to be reckoned with.

Last Train Home seemingly burst out of nowhere when it premiered at IDFA winning Best Feature. The film saw its US premiere a few days ago at Sundance and created buzz in the air throughout the festival. Its quiet presence but huge impact bizarrely mirrors the effect the film has on you when you watch it.

I was fortunate enough to get a copy of the film a week before the festival and by the time I boarded the plane to Utah I’d already watched it twice, as even though the subject matter is tough, it’s a really enjoyable film and I know those wont be the last times I revisit it.

The story charts the journey of one family who are part of the mind-blowing number of 130 million migrant workers who travel home for Chinese New Year. This is the world’s largest human migration and it’s a logistical nightmare as the majority travel from cities into rural China by train.

Director Lixin Fan chose to focus the Zhangs, factory workers who left their country village 16 years ago when their children were infants. Their absence was in the hope they’d make enough money to support their children through their education, something the parents are desperate to provide to give them a better quality of life.

Opening with shots of overwhelmingly huge crowds waiting in the rain you instantly feel a sense of despair at their hopes of boarding the few trains leaving for the two-day journey into rural China. Changhua and Sugin Zhang have waited a week just to try and buy a ticket and their chances seem less likely as time goes on. They eventually succeed and the scenes on the train journey are some of the most insightful glimpses into Chinese people and sensibility that I’ve ever seen, from a man complaining bitterly about economics to discussion at the horror of how western people spend their huge pay checks.

The most fascinating aspects of this story are the relationships the parents have with their children, and in particular, their teenage daughter Qin. You can sense the distance and effects of their absence most notably with Qin’s relationship with them. To the horror of Changhua and Sugin, Qin has dropped out of school and chosen to become a migrant worker.  You empathise with her choice as the young people she lives and works with seems to give her a sense of family she has evidently always yearned for.

Qin also makes the journey back home and, after receiving incredible amounts of pressure from her parents about her future, she finally erupts in torrent of abuse that implodes into a horrifying fight scene with her usually timid father. This explosion of frustration and feeling of abandonment sees her turning on the camera itself screaming “You want to film the real me, this is the real me”.

The story progresses onto the family again leaving their younger children behind to make the journey back, this time with Qin in tow. The lack of connection between mother and daughter is awkwardly painful with Qin being berated constantly, after smirking at the situation, with a deluge of criticisms and biting comments from Sugin for not having “tasted the bitterness of life”.

This is a story of parents desperately trying to keep their family together and ironically feeling this financial enforced absence as the only way. The sacrifice is enormous and the struggle to not lose Qin to their same fate is heartbreaking.

Lixin Fan’s cinematography is intimate and stunning. His proximity to the most telling family moments shows a side to Chinese culture rarely seen. The way this opens up a private nation reminded me of the similarly, and expertly, executed achievement by Sean McAllister’s film Japan: A Story of Love and Hate. The contrasting score of beautifully stark piano and Chinese pop music mirrors the disparity between a Chinese people struggling to adjust beyond their rural past and towards their globally dominant economic future.

Last Train Home is one of the most insightful films I’ve ever seen of the day-to-day lives of Chinese people and the challenges that face them. It’s a complex family portrait that shows how different their reality is to the image the Western world is given. It’s hard to believe this is Lixin Fan’s debut feature documentary as it’s filmmaking of the highest calibre, and I can’t wait to see more from him.