Each year the largest migration of people in human history happens over New Year’s in China, when city workers leave en masse for their hometowns in the countryside, often traveling days by train. For the first half of this remarkable documentary, you’ll wonder how the filmmaker even shot it. But as that wonder subsides, an absorbing drama develops—one that plays out among families all over China yet is universally intense, powerful, and heartbreaking.
With his 35mm camera, Lixin Fan follows one couple (out of one hundred and thirty million travelers!): the Zhangs, who are making the long and crowded journey to their rural village. Sixteen years ago, they left their now-teenage rebellious daughter with her grandparents—and the welcome is not a happy one. [Synopsis provided by New Directors/New Films]
Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening at the 2010 New Directors/New Films Festival.
“Last Train Home”
Director: Lixin Fan
Executive Producer: Zhao Qi
Producers: Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross
Composer: Olivier Alary
Coproducer: Bob Moore
Director Lixin Fan on how he became a filmmaker…
I grew up in China during a time in which the country was experiencing dramatic changes from an agricultural based economy to a modern industrial power. I studied English and worked as a journalist with CCTV, so I had opportunities to travel across the country to witness events that transformed China bit by bit and to meet with people who brought about or coped with social and economic changes from day to day. These experiences inspired me to become a documentary filmmaker with a focus on social issues. In 2003, I edited the Peabody Award winning documentary “To Live Is Better Than To Die,” a film on China’s AIDS epidemic. In 2006, I moved to Canada to seek more opportunities in life and a career in documentary filmmaking. I met the production company that produced “Last Train Home,” EyeSteelFilm, in Montreal and became the associate producer of the award-winning film “Up the Yangtze.” After working on “Up the Yangtze” for two years, I started working on my first film as director.
Fan on what prompted him to make “Last Train Home”…
When I traveled across cities and throughout the vastness of rural China, I was able to get up close with people from all walks of life. I was constantly upset by the widely existing poverty across the countryside, submerged under the glamor of the modern metropolis. I realized that the migrant workers, hundreds of millions by count, are the very contributors to the prosperity we have today. However, most of these migrants were not even covered by the very basic social care and systems of the state. While rural peasants had to paradoxically leave their families behind to work in factories in the hope of a better life, China materialized an economic miracle that lifted the greatest number of people out of poverty in history. Multinational corporations harvested trillions of dollars worth of cheap products made by these farmers-turned workers. These phenomena remind me of the end of western industrialization, only this is happening at a much faster rate and to the world’s most populous country. I wanted to make a documentary about these migrant workers, to recognize their contribution and reveal their conditions of living.
Fan on the approach he took to making the film…
I wanted to make a cinema verité style observational piece. I envisioned an intimate, quiet, and objective observation of the harsh realities of migrants’ lives and the torturous nature of their migration journey. In the factory, life is mundane and robotic – workers repeat the same gesture without words or facial expression, while at the train station, hundred of thousands trudge through a similar emotional journey of eagerness, desperation, and ecstasy.
Another important contrast in the film is rural life versus factory life, the pastoral imagery versus city landscape – contrasting elements that help create a microcosm of Chinese society. By juxtaposing these elements, I wish to explore the metaphysics of the shift in society and lifestyle amid the fast economic development.
Fan on the difficulties he faced in bringing “Last Train Home” to the screen…
The logistics of the filming were challenging. We tried to follow parallel story lines of the parents and the daughter, so obviously we always needed to rush back and forth between them. Also, to film at the railway station before the Chinese New Year was quite difficult too. In 2008, when a snowstorm swept southern China crippling almost half of the country’s railway system, 600 thousands passengers were stuck at the station. The family and the crew were among the crowd. We had to wait for three days and two nights amid the crowd and held onto each other before we jumped on a train to go back to their home town.
On what he thinks audiences will take away from the film…
I think people can relate to this film in various ways, from going through rebellious teenage years, being separated from family or loved ones, or migrating from one place to another. Also, most Western audience enjoy cheap “Made in China” products in the U.S. This film will introduce to the Western audience the makers of their daily goods, and present a human aspect of the consumer goods.
Fan on his inspirations…
I would say Jia Zhangke’s films, especially “Still Life,” are inspirational to my filmmaking. His calm, meticulous, sensitive, and abstract way of looking at the changing China from a humanistic point of view in a greater historical context gave me a lot of inspiration. He uses landscape and environment to define the subject matter. I like the way he explores the relationships between grassroots individuals against the greater backdrop of contemporary Chinese society. Working for another award-winning film, “Up The Yangtze,” also inspired both my visual style and the East meets West way of looking at Chinese issues.
And on any future projects…
My next film is on environmental issues in China. China is currently building a wind farm on the Gobi desert, aiming to complete the project in the next 10 years. The wind energy produced by the wind farm will exceed that of Three Gorges Dam, giving it the name “Three Gorges on Land.” Besides documenting China’s effort to focus on and implement green energies, I want to explore the balance between human and nature through the philosophy of Taoism; for example, how much control humans should place on nature and whether it was worthwhile to develop the society as the expense of exploiting the environment. I chose to work on an environmental topic because this is a pressing issue faced by all countries.