A scene from Lixin Fan's Last Train Home.
Happy Chinese New Year, readers!
Every year, when Chinese New Year comes around, my family and I gather around a big celebratory meal together, replete with all the delicious foods that symbolize prosperity, longevity, and success within the Chinese culture.
Like us, millions of families of Asian descent around the globe also gather to celebrate the beginning of the new Lunar calendar year. For many people in China, however, Chinese New Year in fact marks the only time millions of migrant workers will have the opportunity to see their families at all in any given year. For most Western cultures, the geographic splintering of families as adult children leave the nest in order to forge their own paths is by now a phenomenon considered rote. However, by contrast, the extraordinarily rapid industrialization of China's economy has resulted in a particularly striking, sudden, and by some turns tragic iteration of this concept.
Within the last decade, as the Chinese government has allowed more privatized business models to take hold within the country, opportunities for the lower classes to earn more money have exploded. Most of these opportunities lie in factory work within the country's largest cities, while the majority of the country's most economically depressed citizens live in the nation's rural and outlying areas. Meanwhile, the Chinese ethos of placing emphasis upon a child's education as the primary means for a family's upward mobility still remains as strong as ever. Thus, a paradigm that is essentially the inverse to many Western cultures has manifested in which not only have grown children left their homes to seek their fortunes far away, but millions of parents from rural farming communities have also left young children behind in the care of elderly grandparents in order to seek employment, eking out livings in large urban centers so as not to interrupt their children's study. For a culture that has long prioritized filial piety above all else, this massive exodus of both parents and children from the home alike appears to be causing major ruptures in China's societal fabric, in effect rendering the family unit obsolete and many of its traditional values along with it.
Thus, the annual celebration of Chinese New Year has come to take on even more significance for these families who have become estranged-- parents who have not seen their children in years, brothers and sisters who can barely remember a time when they lived together. Few people outside of China can empathize or even really imagine just how highly emotional, hazardous, and sometimes impossible a feat it can be for these families to make the trip home for this sometimes jubilant, but often bittersweet reunion-- which is perhaps what makes Lixin Fan's 2009 documentary, Last Train Home, so extraordinary.
Produced by the same folks who made Up the Yangtze, Last Train Home chronicles the ups and downs and gradual disintegration of a family as it succumbs to the enormous pressures, expectations, and distances they are forced to endure within this quickly transforming society. Within its first few minutes, the film informs the viewers via subtitles that every Chinese New Year, 130 million workers go home, making it "the world's largest single migration." We then watch as the spectacle of these millions move together in one mass of humanity through the nation's overwhelmed and antiquated rail system. A sea of anxious faces. The pounding of millions of frantic footsteps, mixed with calls of distress, confusion, desperation, and in some cases complete emotional meltdowns. It is one of the most astonishing displays of the lengths to which humans will go in order to reconnect with what we abstractly term as our "roots." The real tragedy of the film, then, is perhaps the slow realization that begins to set in as we follow the journey of one family, The Zhangs, that this ideal of the family hearth to which millions of Chinese citizens cling and hearken back each year is gradually slipping away. Fan never drives this point home with heavy-handed voiceovers or leading editorializing; rather, his unobtrusive lens simply follows the Zhangs and watches-- sometimes with startling intimacy, but always at a respectful distance-- as they grow frustrated, grow tired, and eventually grow apart. At a time when so many families are celebrating the new year with food for feasting, Last Train Home provides much food for thought.