Filmmaker Lixin Fan may very well be one of modern-day China's great non-fiction storytellers. His Sundance World Cinema Documentary competition film, "Last Train Home" is a documentary masterpiece that depicts China's meteoric rise to economic powerhouse through the story of a couple who move away from their rural village to earn money in a big city factory that produces goods for export, leaving behind their two children who are being reared by their grandmother. They only return once a year, during the New Year's holiday, joining a mass migration that includes over 130 million people, the largest annual migration of humanity anywhere.
[Editor's Note: This article was first published during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. "Last Train Home" opens Friday, September 3rd in limited release via Zeitgeist.]
"It's a topic I always wanted to do," Fan told indieWIRE in Park City. "I had the idea in 2003 when I worked for [Chinese television network] CCTV." Fan said that while working for the network at its Beijing offices, he traveled to rural areas of the country and witnessed the poverty there and felt strange returning to the Chinese capital, which along with other big cities along the east of the country, form the economic backbone of the world's third largest economy.
Fan studied English at university and started work at a local television station. One year into the job, he found a pile of transcripts from speeches that colleagues brought back from a documentary seminar. "It all was just sitting there. I was 22 years old, and I started reading this huge transcript. I couldn't put it down. I read it for 15 hours straight and I even brought it home. I was [struck] by the small things that actual people say, and how revealing their words were. So, I decided then that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
Instantly addicted to documentary, Fan said that he began educating himself on the basics of filmmaking. He edited the 2003 doc, "To Live is Better Than to Die," a tough look at AIDS in rural China, and on the advice of a friend living in the U.S., they submitted it to Sundance. "We got into Sundance, but we really had no idea what Sundance was. That was my first trip outside of China," Fan said with a smile.
"Last Train Home" is shot with an observational verite style akin to Frederick Wiseman, though Fan was hard pressed when asked which documentary filmmakers have influenced him. He did cite, however, filmmaker Yung Chang whose film "Up the Yangtze" Fan worked on after a chance meeting during a program called "Made in China" at the Hot Docs festival. "We are both similar, but different also," said Fan. He moved to Montreal and lived in a basement, but went with Chang to film "Yangtze" since Fan happens to speak the dialect common in the area where the film takes place. "He was born in Canada, so he's more Western. But I'm more Chinese."
Still, "Last Train Home" wildly impressed a very Western audience at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) back in November. Industry attendees gave the film terrific buzz, and were surprised that Fan was a relative newcomer. This is his first directorial effort, and yet the film took home the Best Feature-Length Documentary prize.
Fan says he'd like to eventually do fiction work, but said he'd first take time to further educate himself in the craft of filmmaking. "I always want to make better [movie], so I will take my time. I want to start from scratch and learn every step of the trade. But I'll be a documentary filmmaker for the rest of my life."
China will continue to be the focus for his upcoming project which he describes as a cross between environmentalism and philosophy. His homeland is currently constructing the world's largest wind farm in the Ghobi desert in the nation's west. "It's expected to produce more electricity then the Three Gorges Dam," he said. "I want to view the project through Taoism, which seeks a balance between man and nature."
But for now, Fan will travel with "Last Train Home" to other festivals, and audiences will undoubtedly be mesmerized by the film's amazing story and beautifully shot scenes. As one audience member said, "It makes me think twice about buying more clothes."
"I think it's about being conscious about your lifestyle," said Fan. "All my clothes can fit into one suitcase, and I'm perfectly happy."