The pace of economic change in China is nothing short of astonishing. Economic reforms began some 30 years ago, triggering a period of sustained growth that many consider to be a ‘miracle’. This surge of capital is unlike anything any nation state has been subject to for the last 50 years and it’s clear that it’s going to continue. Here’s a fun fact: every month China produces so much excess cash that they could easily use such money to head out into the international market and buy two or three of Britain’s biggest companies and corporations. This month they could easily snap up British Petroleum, Vodafone and Tesco, next month they could go for Barclays, British Telecom and J Sainsbury. Remember the fuss that was generated when American-owned Kraft purchased our beloved Cadburys? China could have produced the surplus cash needed for such an investment in the space of about a week; indeed, the purchase would have amounted to them spending a small amount of pocket change.
Whether China goes the way of Japan, who some twenty years ago had their own economic growth spurt brought to an abrupt end after a serious and fatal asset bubble (whereby the price of Japanese assets saw themselves seriously over-inflated due to surplus-demand) or if it continues along the path towards being an economic superpower remains to be seen. One thing we do know for sure is that any growth of this nature is sure to increase the gap between the rich and the poor significantly. These monetary changes have effected a period of rapid urbanization, which has seen millions of farmers and rural workers move to the cities, bringing about environmental retrogression, a large amount of unemployment and a gap in income that is growing unthinkably large. This is the story of Last Train Home, director Lixin Fan’s documentary film that gives life and character to the detrimental effects of China’s rapid, uncontrolled growth. It throws light on the dark heart of China’s economic miracle.
Every year 130 million or so migrant Chinese workers make a living in dank, soulless, and de-humanising factories producing the goods which power the Chinese economy. In most cases this requires the worker to be away from their family for the space of an entire year – returning home only during the Chinese New Year. It is by this mass human exodus of Chinese migrant workers that the film receives its title – these individuals have to scrabble on board a train that is too compact and too slow and suffer through the largest human migration in the world.
By choosing to focus on this journey, on the separation of families and on the distance and differences between China’s rural past and industrial future, Last Train Home can be seen as document regarding the gaps of all shapes and sizes that have been formed in Chinese society by their economic miracle. Not just the gap that has formed between the rich and the poor, or between industry and agriculture, but also the gap that such economic toils create between individuals that love each other. Perhaps this is why Last Train Home is such an affecting film – it operates on a uniquely human level. We take it for granted that what matters most is not money, but the human relationships that we form over the course of our lives and yet for many in China it is an economic necessity that these relationships be waylaid.
Lixin Fan smartly chose to detail this struggle by focusing on the story of one family trapped in these demoralizing and soul-crushingly glum circumstances. It follows the Zhang family, the mother and father of which left their two children to be raised by their Grandma for 16 years, as they followed a seemingly endless cycle whereby they would work for a year, return for the New Year and head back out to work soon after. Such sacrifices were made in the name of seeing their children through school and hopefully onwards to a life. However, their teenage daughter Qin does not see things this way. She is wracked with a sense of abandonment and rejection which soon manifests into an unerring desire to escape from both her parent’s expectations (that she goes to school, makes a living for herself and doesn’t have to suffer in the same manner that they have to) and from a future that she has no control over. Some of her decisions may appear at first to be disarmingly selfish, but deeper thought reveals them to be entirely natural. There are no bad people in this film; there are only people who are trapped by their own dependence on a broken, manipulative system that throws lives into disrepute. Even when the father, Mr Yang Zhang loses his way and lashes out brutally at his daughter, it’s easy to see it as the consequence of his own tragic embroilment within this system that has left him beleaguered and emotionally insecure.
Lixin Fan’s film went down pretty well with the critics at Sundance this year (it still has 100% on rottentomatoes) and you can see why. This is an undeniably powerful and gently forceful film. It gets its point across without being shouty, pointy or polemical. It is all the more affective for being a simple but effective story about one family’s misfortunes set against the background of a much wider tragedy. Whilst not exactly pleasant or feel-good viewing, Last Train Home remains essential viewing for anyone with any interest in the workings of the economy, cultural anthropology and the manner in which human beings relate to one another.