As Lixin Fan's understated doc depicts the chaos surrounding the annual migration of 130 million workers in China, it also tells the devastating story of one family’s choices and their hope for the future.
People who see movies for a living, especially documentaries, are subjected to a rollercoaster of stories on a weekly basis—heartwarming, infuriating, uplifting, and grim. For this moviegoer, the new doc from Lixin Fan, Last Train Home, was one of, if not the most, saddening. At the same time, it’s an incredibly powerful story that should be seen and discussed around the world.
It’s a little-known fact, even in China itself, that there are 130 million migrant workers in that country who spend most of the year away from home, away from their families, in order to make money. They work brutal hours in massive factories and live in deplorable conditions—basically barracks with curtains around each cot. They wash their clothes by hand on cement floors and make frantic phone calls home to their children, who are being cared for by their grandparents in countryside villages, where the young and old work side-by-side farming the land. In most cases, the parents make these sacrifices in the hopes that their children will study hard and attend university, to break the cycle of poverty within the family.
Once a year, these migrant workers exit the cities en masse, heading home for a brief respite in their respective villages to celebrate the Chinese New Year. You may have seen some of these images on television before—130 million people all trying to travel at once, on an often-antiquated train system. In 2008, a massive snowstorm halted rail service for days, stranding travelers on platforms, desperate to get home for their one annual visit with their families.
Chinese documentarian Lixin Fan was, at that point, two years into making Last Train Home, his documentary about the Zhang family: parents Changhua and Suqin and their two teenage children Qin and Yang. Despite her parents’ plaintive protests, their daughter Qin had quit school and followed her parents into the factory life, and the three of them were heading home for the holiday. The scene Fan caught on film is hard to comprehend—such a mass of humanity (600,000 travelers at one station alone) with virtually no place to go.
Last Train Home is an important film: a personal story about a national—even global—issue. As China has developed into a manufacturing superpower over the last 30+ years, it has done so on the backs of the workers, who are neither justly compensated nor fairly treated. Fan spent three years with this family, whose future is no less bleak now than it was when their children were born. As he explained to us last week, he hopes this film will bring awareness to the rest of the world about the exorbitant personal cost exacted in the name of inexpensive goods.
Tribeca: When I visited China, I was struck by how the Chinese government takes what it wants from communism and what it wants from capitalism, and forges governmental systems that are not exactly the best of both worlds for the people. Can you explain a bit about why so many workers migrate from the countryside to the cities, leaving their children behind?
Lixin Fan: The household registration system policy has been in effect since the start of the People’s Republic of China, which basically divides the population into urban residents and rural residents. If you are a farmer, your kids can only be admitted to public schools in the countryside. If you choose to migrate and work in the city, you don’t have a permit for your children to enjoy the social benefits in the city, including the schools. That’s why they all leave their children back in the village—their kids would not be admitted to schools in the city.
The policy is changing now, but very slowly, because the country has to deal with such a huge population, and it takes time to build infrastructure and facilities.
Tribeca: What made you want to tell this story? How did you find the family?
Lixin Fan: It was a long process. When I first wanted to make a film about migrant workers, I did a lot of research to educate myself. Because the migration is such a big issue, you can talk about it in many ways: how the economy affects the family on a personal level, and broader workers’ rights, insurance, and social welfare policies. I wanted to find a family that could help me explore all these frames or aspects.
I went down to Guangzhou and talked to 40-50 factory workers, to get their stories. When I met the Zhangs, I was struck by their story immediately. The mother told me they left their village to work in the factories 16 years ago, and they only got to spend less than one year with their daughter. That just blew me away, and I figured they would be a perfect subject for the film.
Watch the trailer: