NEW Last Train Home (DVD)
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A couple embarks on a journey home for Chinese new year along with 130 million other migrant workers, to reunite with their children and struggle for a future. Their unseen story plays out as China soars towards being a world superpower.
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End result: they have my money and I have an empty pocket.
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Those turning points cluster around the major New Year's festival in China, each year, when 130 million migrants jam rail lines and boats to gather in their family homes. The film's introduction points out that this may now represent the world's greatest annual migration. And, in the first year, we do see the family's modest New Year's feast and fireworks.
Roger Ebert, in his review highly recommending this film, made the point that this story might have been penned by Charles Dickens in the 19th century. That's an apt comparison as we watch lives ground up in sweatshops and children virtually orphaned into a world of predatory forces. I won't spoil the film by detailing too much of what unfolds in their lives, but the major eruption involves the teen-age daughter who supposedly was the bright hope for the family's future. The daughter is pictured on the cover of the DVD, wistfully looking out the window of a train.
There's a scene late in the film when teen-aged laborers at a bar and grill are allowed to stop for a moment to watch the opening of the 2008 Olympics on a big-screen TV. You'll never forget the juxtaposition of these young faces, caught in the midst of their labor, listening to an Olympics narrator crow: "Friends from around the world will marvel at the splendid heritage and the richness of Chinese culture."
Ebert and I are not alone on this. When it was briefly in theatrical release in 2010, the film also received strong recommendations coast to coast, including the New York Times. Want to understand a bit more about China? See this film!
There are three other points worth noting. (1) Viewers should be warned that there are scenes where the tensions and pressures this family experiences boil over in shocking and very raw ways. This is not kiddy stuff. (2) There are some stunning, absolutely gorgeous, scene shots in this film. However, they tend to create an overly idyllic, romanticized vision of the Chinese countryside. Keep in mind that the pollution of the cities is not unknown in the villages and life is hard enough that people feel compelled to leave. The beautiful depictions of the countryside in this film can tend to make you forget that. (3) A fabulous benefit of this film is the events it captures. Seeing responses to and the effects of the snowstorm of 2008, the Beijing Olympics, and the financial crisis all show up and help display how such natural and unnatural "upheavals" filter down to individuals.
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.
China's 130 millions migrants are not crowding, pushing, stressing, waiting for a train to anyplace exciting, nor a sports occasion, nor something entertaining...... but to a simple place called home.
Home is where they left their children to be raised by grandparents, home is where they are allowed to go but once per year, the Chinese New Year. Home is where they can only make phone calls to, but cannot intervene any other way to check on their children living without them. And this is today, not 50 years ago, but today!
This makes me think.....wow, we get to come home every night to raise our children, but can you imagine coming home once a year for a short time? These people took trains, boats, buses on their journey home, to see the children they do not really know anymore. They stressed out trying to get a train ticket on a seriously overcrowded train, carrying their bags with them.
The saddest part - The mother and father who worked in the factory have a son and early teen daughter who has left school, the camera follows her to the streetlife, working in the nightclubs. She is persuaded to come home with parents, and a physical fight ensues between father and daughter. Daughter's issues are like any young child who felt abandoned by parents, anger, resentment and rebellion are typical.
As the documentary follows the family, we, the viewer are left with questions but no answers narrated. How long is their time off, knowing travel delays could keep them on the road for a week. What are they carrying in their large bags? were all factories shut down? how much money did they make? what happened if there were no grandparents to care for their children?
This film makes you appreciate your commute to work and you get to come home at the end of the day. ....Rizzo