The most nightmarish holiday commute ever

"Last Train Home," a powerful documentary about a Chinese family, is a moving and near-perfect piece of art

Topics: Documentaries, China,

The most nightmarish holiday commute everZhang Qin in "Last Train Home." (Credit: P.O.V./EyeSteelFilm)

Do not miss “Last Train Home.”

This 2010 feature, which makes its PBS debut tonight on the documentary series “P.O.V.,” is about a Chinese family joining 130 million migrant workers as they journey from the city to their home in the country to reunite with their families at New Year’s. Directed by Lixin Fan, “Last Train Home” is not a travelogue, a polemic or a history lesson, but simply a story of people, told with elegance and care. It’s also a rare recent documentary that avoids every modern nonfiction cliché. It features no narration by moonlighting movie stars, no bouncy hand-held camerawork, no fast cutting, no clever graphics, no reenactments, no archival photos, no razzle-dazzle montages with ironic pop songs or Philip Glass music, no horrifying family revelations, and no competitions ending with a teary-eyed champion hoisting a trophy. All it does is point a camera and capture life as it happens.

The main characters are an extended family from China’s Sichuan province — country people who spend most of the year in the industrial city of Guangzhou. They work endless hours in garment sweatshops for pitiful wages, yet still manage to save their money and send most of it back home. The film focuses on a married couple, Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin. They let their eldest daughter, 17-year-old Zhang Qin, postpone college and join them in the city to supplement the family’s meager income. Their decision creates as many problems as it solves.

The family’s story unfolds in an elegantly arranged series of images, moments and scenes, starting with the parents’ journey back home and continuing through an account of their yearly stay in Guangzhou, their daughter’s blossoming into a lovely and stubborn young city woman, and their long trip home for the holidays. The journey back to Sichuan province gives the film its title. This is no casual commuter jaunt; it’s the single largest regular migration on the planet, moving 130 million people across a vast stretch of mountainous terrain.

When the family arrives at the Guangzhou train station, they find untold thousands jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for a train that seems as though it may never arrive. For all the nation’s pride in efficiency, this scene suggests a near collapse of government competence. No one seems to know when the train is coming or why it has been delayed. Some travelers have been standing there for a week. The public square near the train station is too small. The travelers’ tempers shorten as the days stretch out, and their stomachs ache from lack of food and water. The police do what they can to keep order, but they’re outnumbered, and they soon become targets for depressed and furious travelers. “Today you work behind the fence!” a man yells at a cop who won’t let him past a barricade to locate the daughters he lost on the other side. “But tomorrow you’ll be standing here, in my shoes!”

The director, who doubled as cinematographer, surveys this madhouse and captures many harrowing moments, including a surge that almost becomes a mass trampling. When the train finally arrives, our family squeezes into it, three more sardines packed in a huge rectangular tin. But they don’t dwell on their discomfort because it’s better than the nightmare they left behind — and because now, at least, they’re going somewhere.

This magnificent section is the highlight of “Last Train Home,” but the story before and after it is just as gripping, if much quieter. Fan, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker, embodies the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic of mid-20th century documentaries: the Maysles brothers (“Grey Gardens”), D.A. Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back”), Frederick Wiseman (“Titicut Follies”). He doesn’t blatantly editorialize with his shots or cuts, he just turns you into an invisible, extra family member, a silent observer. His camera follows along behind or beside the family as they work in factories, wait for the train, ride home, eat dinner with their relatives, discuss their money problems and argue about their family’s past and future. The changing face of modern China is expressed not with charts, graphs and narration, but in silent, often stunningly composed images: long shots of verdant countryside that contrast against the hard-edged cityscapes; images of cars crawling along gridlocked streets and transformer towers cutting the sky into geometric mosaics; stacks of newly-stiched bluejeans piled on factory floors.

The film’s heart is the relationship between the parents and their daughter, and the difficult, sometimes heartbreaking contradictions of family life. Zhang and Suqin went to the city for the good of the family, to make enough money to raise their standard of living and improve their childrens’ prospects. But this same decision estranged them from their kids — particularly Qin, who was raised by her grandparents. One of the film’s most lovely and powerful moments finds Qin out in the woods lit by a small fire, talking to her late grandfather’s spirit. She considers him her true father, and her grandmother her true mother. She loves but resents her own parents. “All they care about is money,” she says, with the bitterness of a bright young woman who has no idea how impossible it is to be a parent. Her grandmother has lived long enough to put such conundrums in perspective. Sitting at a dinner table with her loved ones, she chastises her grandson for not eating the bitter melon she’s laid out for him. “Taste the bitterness first,” she tells him. “The sweetness will follow.”

Watch the full episode. See more POV.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>