Last Train Home

The Kingston Canadian Film Festival screened Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home this past Sunday afternoon.

While the train and station scenes brilliantly visualize the annual railway struggle, the film is more about the shaky situation of the migrant worker family in 21st century China.  From the richest Shanghai families down to the poorest migrants, China is a country where society hasn’t caught up with and adjusted to the insane development. 

The film follows a real rural family from Sichuan province through a time frame of about three years.  Like many migrants, the parents are working textiles somewhere in Guangdong earning cash for their family, with their two children being raised by their grandmother on their family farm in Sichuan.  Family reunions are limited to a visit at New Years.  The eldest child, Qiu (18) is of the rural variety of the post-Tiananmen generation or after-eighty generation.   More materialistic and more individualistic regarding her situation, she harbors quite an dislike of her parents, whom she feels have abandoned her in favor of work in the city.  This culminates in a very, very intense family fight on New Year’s visit.  Qiu drops of out of school and works textiles in an atypical 3rd tier city, opting to naively live an existence similar to her parents.

Her family turns their hopes to the the 13 year old son, Yang, of whom they dream will enter university although his 5th place marks are not encouraging for his parents.

Probably the most disheartening item of the movie was the constant belief that this education would provide the route to better life.  As a general policy, I certainly believe this, however, I can’t help but look at the phenomenon of the Ant Tribe.  The hundreds of thousands of new university graduates that eek out an urban existence very similar to the factory workers profiled in the film.  It is as if there is no way out.  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle came to mind a few times during the film in the sense of the never-ending optimism expressed by the characters in spite of their situation.  If anyone has a right to blame a system, it is surely these people…yet the blame is often directed at themselves, usually for not “working hard enough”. 

Mr. Fan’s CCTV background became quite apparent when he referred to to China’s migrant/farmer population as ‘backward” in an interview with CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi a few weeks ago.  One may claim semantics, but that phrase is para-official (along the same lines as splittist and harmonious) among media elites on the Mainland…still, as someone who had recently heard Mr. Fan speak mentioned to me via FB, he appeared somewhat disconnected from the subject he was exploring.

That said though, it’s a great film and pulls out the often over-looked affects of rapid development on family structures in post-1979 China.  

The film was shot over a few years with the craziest rail station scenes having been shot during the 2008 ice storm that shut down most of southern China.  It’s probably important to keep that mind.   As chaotic a train station is during that time of year, it’s not usually that bad.  

I had learned my lesson regarding travel during New Year’s during trip to Xi’an in 2007 and opted to spend my 2008 holiday out of country, but I still managed to hit huge crowds in the airports and at a rail transfer in Shenzhen.

During that trip in 2007 I barely made it aboard the train and had to be pushed into the car (on account of my backpack).  Bizarrely enough, I actually managed to buy a ticket that had a seat, but it was impossible to access it given the sardine nature of the car…so I just told the conductor to give it to a kid. 

22 hours sitting on/near/under my backpack slammed up against the entrance door in the tiny section between train cars.  Luckily the door never opened.  I was near the washroom facilities which was somewhat of a Catch-22.  Odor-wise…not the greatest spot to be…from an convenience point of view…not bad.  I’ve heard that people will often wear diapers during such trips because they just can’t get to the washroom.

IMGP0008 Being used as a pillow (Xi’an – Nanjing February 2007)IMGP0001IMGP0007

Having some warm brews.  Most people told me they were just happy to get a ticket. (Xi’an – Nanjing February 2007)


My good ole’ pack is so useful (Xi’an – Nanjing February 2007)

Shenzhen (27)

Heading home – Shenzhen January 2008

Shenzhen (26)

Heading home – Shenzhen Train Station January 2008

Lukou Airport (12)

Stuck in the airport – Nanjing Lukou International Airport 2008

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