Documentary subjects do not get bigger than this. Every year throughout China, 130 million migrant workers leave the large coastal cities and the factories that employ them and travel home to their rural villages for the New Year's holiday. For his documentary Last Train Home, Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan sifts through the massive human migration effort and sets his camera on garment factory worker Changhua Zhang and his wife Sugin Chen. The couple journey via train, bus and boat from their factory jobs in Guangzhou 2100 kilometers northwest to their Sichuan Province home for a brief reunion with their teenage daughter, Qin Zhang and young son Yang Zhang. Last Train Home, which New York-based specialty distributor Zeitgeist Films plans to release in early September, is a riveting and big picture look at the social phenomenon unique to modern-day China and its rise as a capitalist power. Yet, Fan finds the delicate balance between broad socio-political themes and a single family torn between centuries-old traditions and the desire to succeed in the capitalist world.
Fan shows firm command of the story's epic scope in the film's opening scenes as he wades with his camera through the massive crowds at Guangzhou's train station while mobs of people try to board trains home. What pushes Last Train Home above other docs, what stays in one's heart and mind, are the intimate and personal struggles Fan reveals about the Zhang family.
The Zhangs are a soft-spoken couple and Fan capitalizes on their quiet demeanor by making a film that's a poetic extension of their shy, somewhat humble personalities. Some of their awkwardness towards their children revolves around the fact that they have not seen their children regularly since leaving to work in a far-away factory. Another factor is that they are both uneducated. As Changhua admits to his daughter during one of their New Year's reunions, he's not sure how to talk to her.
Working alongside camera operator Shaoguang Sun, Fan immerses audiences into the vast crowds waiting outside the train station. He also punctuates the urban noise with scenes of pastoral beauty and stunning aerial footage of the Zhang's rural home. Composer Olivier Alary matches the scenes perfectly with a beautifully subtle score.
Fan learned about the New Year's migration first-hand while working for Chinese broadcaster CCTV, but Last Train Home is still a courageous and challenging project to tackle as one's debut feature film. It's a timely topic as China continues its rise as one of the world's leading economies. Still, Fan keeps it personal and emotionally riveting by focusing on the Zhangs, whose frustrations grow as Qin rebels against her absentee parents by dropping out of school to work in a nearby factory. She wants to earn money like her parents but they're devastated because they're convinced that education is the only way to a better life for their kids.
Produced by the Montreal-based company EyeSteelFilm and distributed by Zeitgeist Films, the same companies behind the 2008 Chinese documentary Up the Yangtze (Fan worked as an associate producer on the film), Last Train Home will likely best the modest box office of Yangzte thanks to positive word of mouth, strong outreach to Chinese-American communities and growing interest in Chinese affairs. While its box office will be determined by the scale of its platform release as well as its limitations as a Mandarin Chinese film with English subtitles, Zeitgeist can expect Last Train Home to become one of the year's top performing specialty docs. For Fan, who is making his filmmaking debut, he could not hope for a better introduction to North American specialty film audiences.
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Cast: Changua Zhang, Sugin Zhang, Qin Zhang, Yang Zhang and Tingsui Tang
Director: Lixin Fan
Producers: Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin
Genre: Documentary; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Running time: 87 min
Release date: September 3, NY