Geneva Anderson digs into art

Film review: Lixin Fan’s “Last Train Home”—In China, a teenage daughter’s rebellion crushes her parents and points to the extreme vulnerability of migrant workers

Lured by the promise of money and an exciting urban life Zhang Qin, 17, quits school against her parents' wishes, leaves her rural village, and travels to Guangzhou to join the throngs of migrant factory workers. Once on this track, it will be very difficult for Qin to return to school.

In China, over 120 million migrant workers have sacrificed everything for a country that barely acknowledges them and they lead precarious and very fractured family lives.  This is China’s dirty little secret and Chinese-Canadian Director Lixin Fan exposes it brilliantly in his thoughtful documentary “Last Train Home” which has won nearly every award there is to win on the film festival circuit, including the prestigious Golden Gate Award for best investigative documentary feature at SFIFF 53 ( 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival).  The film opens this week across the Bay Area and it well-worth seeing, particularly for families with children who are old enough to read subtitles and curious about other cultures and their connection to our American way of life.

“Last Train Home” is Fan’s directorial debut but he is well-respected for his previous work on the award-winning “Up the Yangtze,” also shot in China and pointing to the perils of modernization for the poor. “Last Train Home”  represents the filmmaker’s brilliant immersion into his subject to capture a poignant story of one Chinese family that could easily be the story of any of China’s 120 million migrant factory workers who lead lives of extraordinary hardship to offer their children a way out of poverty.  Fan focuses on the Zhang family—Zhang Changhau (father) and Chen Suqin (mother)—from a rural village in Sichuan province who have been piece workers in clothing factories in Guangzhou for 15 years.  They made the difficult decision to leave their infant children with their grandmother in the family’s ancestral village in countryside and let her raise them.  She survives on subsistence farming and the money the Zhangs send back from the city.  In life, the Zhangs have been confronted with a series of choices that all lead to undesireable outcomes.

The film captures the Zhang’s herculean efforts to get back home for the Chinese New Year, their much-awaited annual two-day train journey that provides their only chance to see their two children for a day or so until the next New Year rolls around.  Every year, 120 million workers leave China’s cities and return to their rural homes too, making this the largest recorded human migration.  In 2007, a horrific storm shuts down most of China’s transport and the Zhangs barely make it.  Fan’s beautiful cinematography, wideangle pans and occasional close-up shots of distress, show  these people as they must appear to the Chinese government—amorphous pixels in a larger whole.

Lxin Fan, director of "Last Train Home" (2009), chose the backdrop of the annual Chinese New Year exodus of migrant workers to the countryside to examine the shameful plight of Chinese migrant workers who have enabled China's economic development.

What awaits the Zhangs upon their return home is their disrespectful and resentful teenage daughter, Qin, who doesn’t see the value in pursuing her education and announces she too is going to become a factory worker.  Their younger son Yang is less anxious, bearing the constant chiding of his grandmother to study more.  He proudly shows his report card to his parents and announces that he is among the top in his class.  They respond by asking why he is not number one.  

 The Zhang’s want the best for their children but their absence in their daily lives has created resentment and the pain of abandonment.  In phone calls home, they obsessively focus on their children’s school performance–and they are both uneducated—and fail at forging a real connection.  Like many, they are a family in name, held together by sweat equity and set to crumble.  Multiply that story by 120 million and it becomes the plight of a country, a country that is catapulting forward with its migrant workers as shock absorbers. This is the new China and like it or not, we here in America are part and parcel of it.  Watch and learn.

Opened Friday, September 24, 2010, in Bay Area theatres.

Directed by Lixin Fan; Edited by Lixin Fan, Mary Stephens; Director of Photography, Lixin Fan; Camera Operators, Lixin Fan, Shaoguang Sun; Music by Olivier Alary; Produced by Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross; Zeitgeist Films release.  87 minutes.  In Mandarin and Sichuan dialect with English subtitles.  This film is not rated.

Geneva Anderson: Why did you focus on this particular subject matter—migrant workers?  I suspect it’s because it hits on the inherent tensions in the society itself and within families…this rapid paced economic transition has real consequences for individuals.

Lixin Fan:  Yes, but it’s also personal.   I began to work for China’s CCTV as a journalist early in my career and I used to travel across the country a lot with many peasants and migrant workers on trips to remote areas all over the country.  When I  came back to Beijing, the city where I lived, the great disparity between the rural China and urban metropolis China was almost unfathomable and it struck me every time.  I started to think where does all this economic advancement come from, at what price and where is it leading?  I realized that there are 160 million migrant workers who have been contributing, sacrificing on an individual level for three decades since China opened up its market.  I don’t think the government has done enough to help them on either an individual or national policy level.  Also, the urban residents don’t really appreciate or understand the hardship they have and that’s why I started to make this film–to tell the story of migrants to create awareness for those who live in the city and also for the government and outside the country as well. 

GA: What message do you hope that an American audience will come away with after seeing his film?

Lixin Fan:  The film is about migrant workers and the workers’ lives at the other end of the world, which is actually very connected to our life here in the West because of this process of globalization where everything they make is shipped out to the West and consumed by us.  I really hope that after watching the film, that audiences in the West will take some time to rethink our lifestyle here and what we can do in our own lives to change certain things.

GA:  Your budget for the film was about $1 million.  As a newcomer, how did you get your film funded and what issues were involved in that?  I understand that in China you were accused of taking foreign money and therefore being subject to foreign influence?  Do claims like these really carry weight in China?  What was your reaction?

Lixin Fan:  I felt extremely lucky, being a newcomer, to get external funding to make the film that I always wanted to make.   I moved to Canada 4 years ago and I worked on “Up the Yangtzee” as the Associate Producer and I got to know the production company, Eyesteelfilm, through that work in Montreal.  I started my research and filming in 2006.  The first phase of shooting was funded by my friend in China, not any official or broadcaster funding, rather through individual private investment that I was able to make a trailer, put together a really tight proposal, and to complete the first years of filming.  The production company had faith in this project so we teamed up and travelled to many festivals to pitch this to broadcasters and funding agencies all over the world.  Funding-wise, we had Telefilm funds in Canada, the Quebec Province Art fund, and many broadcaster pre-sales and in the States, ITVS and Sundance documentary funds.  When all this came together, we were able to sustain the filming for three years, a very nice budget for a documentary.

When I went back to show the film in China, there were accusations that I was taking the Western money to essentially reveal the bad/shameful side of China.  I don’t think of it that way but given how important the notion of saving face is culturally in China, I can understand that this occurred.  I think of like this—if my mother were very ill and she needed some unpleasant medicine and if I, as a loving son, had the choice of giving her this medicine or sort of tricking her and telling she was ok when she wasn’t, my mother might be unhappy with that bitter medicine but it’s going to help treat her in the long-run whereas a lie will do nothing.  I believe in what I do because telling the truth is better for China and for the world.

GA:   Were these claims made by people your age?  I hope not because it’s people of your generation who all this is going to fall on like a ton of bricks.

Lixin Fan:   Exactly.  I can tell you that these comments were mostly made by elderly people, the older generation.  When I showed the film in Vancouver, Canada, an old Chinese lady, an immigrant to Canada, was furious after the Q&A.   She pointed her finger at me and called me out on showing this dark side of China to Canada.  I was surprised and very sad that she had not gotten any distance from all of this.

GA:  What is the general level of receptivity in Asia, HK and China to a film that address these serious issues and their social consequences?

Lixin Fan:   We already screened it in Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival and it went quite well.  The audience thought it was a very truthful accounting of this situation.  Many of the audience were university students who had come from the countryside and they were very moved by it.  A boy told that me that it was the story of his life because his elder sister was working in a factory while he was at university.  We will screen it in Shanghai too.

I gave a copy of the film to the Zhangs, who were both working in the factory.  At the end of the film, the mother has returned to the village but she actually returned to the factory last year.  The father later told me that he was very sad watching three years of their life on screen.  And the mother said she still cannot understand why Qin, their daughter, hates them so much while they have sacrificed everything for her.  This is a very tragic situation.

GA:  What has happened with Qin since you shot the film?  She was very vulnerable.

Lixin Fan:  Qin quite her job at the bar and went to find work at a hotel in Hubei province in Central China.  At the last Spring Festival (2009), the mother told me that Qin had called them and said she was ok and was making friends in the city but that she was not coming home for the New Year.  She’s a very rebellious girl but she’s smart and she’s claiming her independence in the city. Obviously, she’s chosen in an entirely different way than her parents had planned for her which way to escape through university education and have a good job and security in the city but she had to have it her way.

GA:  Qin drew a line in the sand.  Isn’t this symbolic of that whole generation, who might be looking at the lives of sacrifice their parents and grandparents have lived and not wanting all that responsibility put on them?   

Lixin Fan:  China is setup so that the older generations sacrifice for the younger and in their old age, the elderly are cared for by the younger.  The parents’ generation really sacrificed everything.  You see it in the film–the parents are far from home, living in meager circumstances and they send all their savings back home to the grandmother and kids.   After either getting old so they can’t work any longer or the competition weeds them out, they would go back to their village and start farming on a small plot of land.  This is in essence their retirement from the government in the absence of any social benefits.  This land is it for the rest of their lives.  Qin’s generation, grew up in the opening up period, a much freer society, with TV and hamburgers.  They pretty much adopted the liberal ideas from the West.  I do not know if they will shoulder this responsibility as their parents did, but this is a looming problem.  The very immediate issue is how they will survive in the city with no education, no skills and compete against the much better educated city kids.  This is a problem with no easy answer.  After the financial crisis, the state had to come up with a stimulus plan and a portion of that is dedicated to education benefits for these migrant workers.  I spoke about this with a friend of mine here who is an economist and he is very skeptical about this approach. 

GA:  So this impetuous rebellion of Qin could have a permanent impact that puts her on track for a very precarious life.

Lixin Fan:  Yes, I would agree with you.  I can’t say there is no hope, but once she took that track, it is going to be very difficult to go back and get an education.

 GA: Can you describe the situation of shooting in the train station?  It looked very dangerous and frightening.

Lixin Fan:  It was like a war-zone.  The police and army were all there trying to restore order. That was in 2008 when China got hit by a big snow storm which basically threw out the half out the country’s railway system.   Me, the crew and cast–we all got stuck in that station for three days.  It was really challenging to shoot there.  Whenever the crowds start to move, they really lift you and you literally get carried away in different directions and there is no control at all.  At night, there are so many people shuffling that it’s impossible to keep your eyes on the subject, no matter how close.  Everyone was wearing a wireless microphone and I gave them all a bunch of batteries and told to change every few hours to make that we could stay connected.  I told the mother and father “If you don’t see us, talk into the mic and we’ll find you.”  And we did lose each other and find each other again and again.

GA: Is there anything the Zhangs asked you to edit out of the film?

Lixin Fan:  I had total editorial control and the Zhangs were very good and trusting people.  I think you are asking about the fight and that was a very tense moment but they never asked me to edit that at all.  In fact, we sat down and talked for hours after that and, in the end, I ended up asking them if I could use that and they said yes.

GA:  What is your next project?

Lixin Fan:  I am trying to combine energy with the philosophy of Chinese Taoism in the storyline so that it is all about finding a balance between human beings and nature.  I will film at a wind farm construction site in the Gobi desert.  I will also film in a Taoism martial arts school in a remote area where the Taoism philosophy originated.

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment