REVIEW: DVD Release: Last Train Home

Film: Last Train Home
Release date: 25th October 2010
Certificate: E
Running time: 85 mins
Director: Lixie Fan
Starring: Suqin Chen, Changhua Zhan, Qin Zhang, Yang Zhang
Genre: Documentary
Studio: Dogwoof
Format: DVD
Country: Canada/China/UK

Powerful documentary about migrant workers in China, Last Train Home is a moving depiction of a country in transition, struggling to reconcile old traditions with modern cultures.

Last Train Home is the first feature film from Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan, and follows the story of the Zhang family from rural Sichuan. Like the rest of the 130 million (and growing) other migrant workers in China, both mother and father work in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China, leaving behind their two children in the care of their elderly grandparents. The only real opportunity they have to see their children is during the annual public holiday at Chinese New Year, and we follow the couple on their cross-country journey, alongside the billions of other commuters at this time of year.

Although this documentary focuses on the phenomenon of Chunyun (the month long travel period around New Year), it uses the journey simply as a way in to investigate this new emerging migrant culture. For the Zhang family, and many others, the choice to work away from home is a bitter and painful decision, forcing themselves to leave their children in order to financially support them.

The irony in the separation between parent and offspring is that when the family is at last reunited, the parents can only anxiously enquire about report cards, lecturing their children to study harder at school. There is too much at stake here; how can the parents relax when everything they have sacrificed and worked for is to create a better future for their children? Yet for the children, it is this very burden, the knowledge that their parents must abandon them for their own benefit that drives a wedge between their relationships.

This problematic situation is further exasperated when the eldest sister, Qin, drops out of school in order follow in her parents’ footsteps and work in a factory in Guangzhou. The parents’ anger and despair is obvious. Why did they risk everything just so their daughter could end up with the same fate as themselves? It seems that financial support on its own is not enough to ensure that their children will have a better quality of life…

Some of the most striking moments in the film are the chaotic train station scenes, as the Zhangs embark on their journey home. Aerial shots of the endless throngs of people, pushing and queuing for days outside the station, convey the magnitude and logistical nightmare of a country trying to facilitate this mass migration. Hysterical women are pulled out from the crowds, clutching their belongings and screaming for their lost husbands and siblings. On-board the crowded train, migrant workers swap stories of their hardships in the city, all of them working for similar factories that export cheap goods to the West.

It is during these scenes that the reason why these people choose to live such gruelling lives is revealed. In a country of 1.3 billion people and no welfare system, the ability to spend time with your family is a luxury that many simply cannot afford to have. Having been deprived of the means to earn a living for so many decades, rural people are now capitalising on whatever opportunities they can find, even at the sake of their family. These people are all hungry for a slice of the wealth they have been denied for so long, because they know that there is simply not enough to go around.

It is a situation that is very much epitomised by the huge mobs of people at the train station. Although the commuters are all aware of the station guards’ pleas to stop pushing, every single individual knows they must shove their hardest to get to the front of the queue, because if they don’t, they will simply be left behind. In a country as big as China, there will never be enough spaces on trains or any other mode transport, never enough jobs to go around or places in schools for everyone. It is the most extreme example of survival of the fittest.

As we see the Zhangs emerge in a sea of faces at the station, we wonder what other personal stories of suffering and hardship do each of these millions of migrants have. How many other Qins are out there, and how many families are also struggling to piece back together their fragmented lives in this fast changing country? Although migration is a growing trend in many other countries around the world, China’s massive population means that everything is amplified, accelerated and intensified so many times over.

Last Train Home is a moving documentary that uses the personal and intimate story of one family in order to embody the countless experiences of the hundreds of millions of other migrant families in China. KW


  1. Just ordered this from amazon, sounds like a brilliant AND IMPORTANT film

  2. Look out for an interview with the director to go live on the website next week!

  3. The film does make you consider the emotional cost that many factory workers have to bear, just so that the jeans we buy as the consumer is a couple of pounds cheaper...