Last Train HomeThere’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.

Which is why I’m grateful for having caught Last Train Home, a documentary by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Fan Lixin, as it re-humanized the mass of strangers just off the edge of my doorstep.

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.


  1. It is available for stream in Netfilx, Thanks for a great movie tip, can’t wait to watch it tonight when i get home!

  2. Thanks for posting that. I am a frequent visitor to China, but usually only stay 10-15 days at a time. I always feel like I am just skimming the surface of the Country every time I visit. I will be streaming this movie the first chance I get. Thanks!

  3. “There’s an undeniable disconnect between being a foreigner in China and being a Chinese in China….”

    I agree with you, because in Beijing, foreigners are more than 90% living in Chaoyang district, They are merely in others districts, except they are in couple with a Chinese. Even, foreigners are not welcome to the Shijingshan district in Beijing, because of the army base… so creepy.

  4. That’s another China different from what the Chinese press tells the world.
    I can’t remember how many times I get the Last Train Home.
    The most recent one time was at the first day of Chinese new year in 2008 or 2009, I can’t remember exactly.
    Still afraid of being in such crowded.

  5. Often, I think I know China well. However, just as often, it occurs to me that I don’t really know what I thought I knew. The visions and experiences collected and stored in my mind while I am awake are gone after I have slept. Reasoning and understanding seem to last only for a few hours before becoming illusory: the images and meanings disappear one by one, stolen from me by apparitions and secreted away, never to be returned in their original form. The understandings that I have assiduously acquired are nothing more than banal when bound together to try and shape the oldest continuous civilization on earth. Experience, learning and proudly possessed knowledge, gained from many sources and from interaction with its people, are taken from everyone who thinks they know China and passed on to others who share them smugly, use them with confidence, reverently broadcast them as Gospel for a few praiseworthy moments. “I know China.” Then, time and circumstance mangle them until they are beyond comprehension. These too will be passed on and shared as truth, only to be proved wrong again. The enigma is this: China never changes, but China is always changing. Its people beset by burden, affected with melancholy, inured to bewilderment, and suckled on uninterrupted millennia of incalculable hopelessness and sorrow. “There is chaos under heaven and things could not be better”, said Mao Zedong. This is the real truth: “China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese” – Charles De Gaulle. China: don’t ask, it is what it is…

  6. Good movie! I first saw this about 6 months ago, and was re-watching it the other day. The last time I tried to watch it was at this movie night I was hosting at my school. There were some Chinese people there, and I found it weird how uninterested they were in the lives of ordinary Chinese people. These girls actually got up and left halfway through. A similar thing happened when we watched Beijing Bicycle, as I recall, but with different people.

    I suppose these people were quite middle-class, but maybe it does make a difference watching these movies as a foreigner. I guess a lot of Chinese just accept the situation of families like the one in Last Train Home as ‘the way things are’.

    I don’t really agree that the plight of the teenage girl (Qin, I think she’s called) is framed in “traditional Chinese terms”, nor do I think that her rebellion is portrayed as ‘foolish, ungrateful or unfilial’. The film doesn’t really make judgements. I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t find her choices foolish, but the film goes a long way to show the pressure she’s under, and how she’s suffering because of it – the scene where she’s crying at her grandfather’s grave, when she tells her younger brother she wants to leave the countryside because ‘this is a sad place’, and so on.

    By the way, Ryan, if you read this, I can’t seem to make comments using my login.

  7. Great flick. I’ve been recommending it to people as well. If you want a realistic cinematic view of modern China, this is pretty much the best that’s out there, as far as I know.

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