Last Train Home depicts what it calls "the world's largest human migration," when some 130 million Chinese migrant workers go home each winter to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families. Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan helped produce 2007's Up the Yangtze, and his new film is a similarly intimate treatment of the lives of ordinary people in a fast-changing China.
Scenes of massive, chaotic throngs at the train station in Guangzhou show the migration's strains on China's transportation network, but Fan is more interested in its small-scale strains on the Chinese family. The film follows Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin, a middle-aged couple whose desire for a better life for their children drove them to leave the youngsters in the care of their grandparents while they went off to work in faraway clothing factories. Beaten down by years of grueling labor, they've mortgaged their happiness for the future of their young son and 17-year-old daughter, Qin. For her part, Qin feels abandoned and betrayed by her parents and resents them for insisting that she stay in school, when she's lured by the independence and consumer fulfillment that would come with getting a factory job like theirs.
As Fan's unflinching cameras capture wrenching scenes of strife in the Zhang household, we're left to consider that similar personal tragedies are playing out in millions of homes across China. We're also reminded of the end result of all the dislocation and drudgery, which is to export cheap consumer goods to the rest of the world, us in particular. As privileged citizens of the symbiotic two-headed beast "Chimerica," our two economies now inextricably linked, it's instructive to see how the other half—or, population-wise, the other fourth-fifths—lives.