There’s an undeniable disconnect between being a foreigner in China and being a Chinese in China. Yeah, I know, thank you Captain Obvious. As self-evident as that statement is, it’s sometimes easy to neglect the truth in it and ignore the consequences of what it is to be Chinese in China.
Maybe this is only true for me, but when I first arrived in China I was fascinated with everything. I sucked it all in like a sponge. Every discarded baijiu bottle, weathered shoe repair person, steamy baozi vendor… it was all so noticeable. But after a time these things, and the millions of others of still frames that blur together to form a tapestry of modern China, began to blend into the background as I just got on with living. I shifted from being a curious tourist to a preoccupied resident.
Over the course of several years, the documentary follows a family led by migrant working parents, chronicling the myriad of challenges they face. Far from their small rural town in Sichuan, the parents have worked in in Guangzhou factories for nearly two decades. The couple’s two children have been raised by the children’s grandmother, only seeing their parents once a year at Spring Festival.
The film takes its name from the chaotic 1,000+ km convoluted and crowded journey home that the parents make each year for the Chinese New Year, getting quite literal at points when the parents very nearly aren’t able to find tickets at China’s busiest time of year.
Last Train Home Trailer
On Youku too.
One of the central points of the story is the conflict between the parents and their oldest child, a daughter of 16 or 17. They want her to appreciate how hard they have worked for her to have a better life. Against their wishes she ditches school for the allure of making her own money and living her own life.
And it’s in that where I find the most common ground with the subjects of the film. The story is used as an example of how the hardships of the parents have torn apart the family and led the girl astray. The documentary does a good job of framing it in typical “traditional Chinese” terms, with the girl portrayed as foolish, ungrateful and unfilial. However, what struck me was how incredibly normal the behavior seemed. It was exactly what you would expect from a teenager. Pushed a little far, perhaps, but on par with the climate she was living in.
At times bone-cuttingly honest, Last Train Home is a unique opportunity for outsiders to get a glimpse of the hardships and tough decisions many, if not most, Chinese face. With so many headlines about China’s accession into development and prosperity, this film does well to remind on whose backs the country is rising.
But more than that, I felt it did an effective job of nailing one more plank on the bridge between “us” and “them.” Despite the disparate level of adversity between their lives and mine, despite all the culture differences we’re subtly taught differentiate us to the point of no recognition, I saw myself in these people. I saw the daughter’s actions in my past and the parents’ dilemmas in my present and future.