The Last Train Home is a 2009 documentary directed by Lixin Fan and produced by Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin of EyeSteelFilm. (Note: the literal translation of the Chinese title is "Homeward Train", a more accurate description in my opinion). It documents one migrant worker family - the Zhangs - but it presents the dilemmas faced by some 130 million migrant workers in current day China.
The core of the Zhang's dilemma is that Changhua and his wife, Suqin, have migrated from their rural village to work in garment industry jobs available in the city, leaving their two children behind in the care of the children's grandmother, Tingsui. The Zhangs only see their children once a year, when they and millions of other migrant workers make their annual trek home to rural villages all over China for the traditional Chinese New Year celebration.
In the Zhangs case, they have been doing this for sixteen years, ever since their two children, Qin (daughter) and Yang (son) were infants, all in the hope of providing a better life and future for their children. But it is not without a considerable toll. In addition to the long hours of labor, the tiny cramped quarters the Zhangs must live in to save money, the complete lack of anything like sick leave or other benefits we take for granted, there is the problem that they've become strangers to their own children, who to their dismay they discover not only do not understand why they have chosen the life they have, are, in the case of their 16-year-old daughter Qin, rejecting the future they have worked so hard for so long to give them. For it is revealed that Qin has not only dropped out of school, she has become a migrant worker herself because she is tired of living in a rural village and wants to go to the city where life is exciting and she can "have some fun".
Each of the family members has their own form of moving eloquence. The subtitles render the meaning of the Chinese words, but it is their faces and body language that convey the deep felt emotions that make their lives and problems universal. The father, Changhua, is a man who tends to silences, unable most of the time to confront his situation with words, letting his intuitive wife, Suqin, speak both to and for him; a moving display of two people truly bound together. The scene near the end of the film where they make the difficult decision for Suqin to stay in the village with their remaining child Yang while Changhua continues to labor in the city leaves you feeling the entire weight of the lives bearing down on them. The grandmother, Tingsui, is also moving as she comments on what is happening to the family with a mix of understanding and resignation that comes from having lived through three generations of change. And Qin, in her increasingly rebellious and frustrated outburts, leaves you sympathizing with her even while knowing that she is making a ghastly mistake that not only hurts her family but in the end hurts herself by denying her everything her parents had hoped for her.
Highly recommended as a starkly beautiful if troubling slice of life documentary, for anyone with an interest in the social conditions of modern China in transition.