Thursday, June 17, 2010

SIFF, Week Three: Last Train Home (China/Canada-Quebec, 2009, 87 mins)

Along with A Tribute to Edward Norton, this movie was supposed to be a Seattle Cinema Club Meetup, organized by me.  Three other people had said they were going.  When I checked after the movie had played, two of them had canceled.  I never saw the third person, maybe because he didn't see my Starbucks hat (which I said I'd wear, but only held in my hand until I was inside the theater), or maybe because he didn't bother trying to find me.

In any case, Grace's tweet must have worked (you have to scroll down to 1:15 pm June 12th), because the movie was on rush only, and, in fact, all of those tickets may have been sold, as well.

To compensate for my miserable organizational efforts on behalf of the Seattle Cinema Club, I ran into some friends at the theater--the only time that's happened at the festival (I have run into Alan at other screenings, but always after the film has ended, and always with one of us volunteering).  They were all from my Japanese Meetup Group, which I haven't been to in awhile because I've been doing census work and SIFF volunteering.  I had met all but one before, and got to hang out with them after the movie, as well (in fact, I will now be contacted by them when they want to see a film, which is good news for me).

Anyway, Lixin Fan, the director of this documentary, arrived that morning from China.  He had a 15 hour flight from Beijing to here, with a stopover in Tokyo.  Before the film began, he told us a little bit about it.  I should mention that his English is quite good, though he occasionally would correct a word that he used in a sentence (and the corrections weren't always correct).  He is also quite young, but, then again, this is his directorial debut.

The film was finished last October, after he had worked on it for four years.  It played at the International Documentaries Film Festival Amsterdam in 2009, where it won the top prize.  To prep the movie for us, Fan said, "This is a story that happens on the other end of the world."

The only review I read before writing my own review (and this was several months ago) was Grace Wang's wonderful review, redone here for Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents page.  I am not going to attempt to top it.  Rather, I am going to review it in my own way.

Last Train Home starts off by documenting the plight of migrant workers by focusing on one family, the Zhangs (mother Suqin Chen, father Changua, daughter Quin, brother Yang, and their grandmother), and ends by documenting the growing pangs of an entire country.  When I read Grace's review, I got the impression that Quin's flight to the factories happened much later in the film, but it happens early on, after a tearful chat with her deceased grandfather, who we find out, later in the film, is the one who raised her.

The sad truth of migrant workers is that they only get to go home once a year, during Chinese New Year. They send money home to their children the rest of the year, but are strangers to them.  In Quin's case, she feels resentful that her parents keep harping on her about doing well at school, but all they seem to care about is making money, instead of staying home with her.  The parents, for their part, tell how difficult it was for Suqin to leave Quin at one year old (and Yang as a baby) and go work with her husband in the factories.  Changua also tells of the time, before they got factory jobs, that he had to go to his sister to borrow money.  The silence that occurs in the middle of his telling of the tale is one of the saddest things I have seen on film.  Watching someone hold in tears is much sadder than seeing those tears fall.

Of course, Quin sees the situation differently.  She wants independence from these strangers whom she only gets to see once a year. And so, in a wonderful scene, with Quin and Yang sitting on a hill, looking across the landscape, she tells her brother to make sure that he visits their grandfather's grave while she's gone.

Quin drops out of school and gets a job at a factory that one of her friends works at.  One of my favorite scenes in the film shows her with her friend and another girl, acting like the teenagers that they are.  Changua goes and visits her, but we can see that he doesn't know what to say in order to get her to go back to school, other than telling her that she now sees how hard it is to work in a factory.

The family goes home together that year, but they get stuck at the train station when a blizzard shuts down most of the train lines (600,000 people got stuck in the railway station that year, according to Fan).  From here on out, the movie becomes much more powerful, and begins to transform from its singular focus on one family (which it continues to follow) to a broader commentary on China and the generation now coming of age over there.

Besides the scenes described above, three other scenes stand out.  In the first scene, one of the family members stares right at the camera (the only time in the film that anyone does that).  The result is stunning.  I've never felt as if someone in a movie were looking right through me before.  In the second scene, the camera observes three people watching the lighting of the Olympic torch in Beijing.  In that scene, pay attention to the expression on the middle person's face, and you'll discover all you need to know about how Chinese people viewed those Olympic games.  In the final scene, Quin is dancing in a nightclub.  The camera looks up at her from the dance floor, as the strobe light catches her form in motion.

One caveat: this film shows beautiful vistas and a sea of humanity at the train station, both of which would benefit from clear images, yet the film being projected onto the screen was anything but clear, particularly in the background (though the subtitles seemed to be in focus).  If this movie chain (AMC) is purposely dimming its bulbs during these films (which it did during the SIFF previews, noticeable during Garbo: The Spy as well), shame on them.  If they just have shitty projectors, or aren't threading the films correctly, shame on them, too.  Strangely enough, I didn't notice this problem while watching Garbo (in the same theater), and I sat farther away from the screen then.

A Q & A session followed.  Fan said that he and his crew followed the family for three spring festivals (Chinese New Years), originally finding them in 2006.  At that time, he was meeting with many of the migrant workers working in Guangzhou.  What attracted him to the Zhangs was the mother's story, of how she had started working in the factories with her husband fifteen years ago, after having spent only one year with her daughter.  Her worry over her daughter spoke to something very real and very human inside of Fan.

As the beginning of the film notes, and as Fan pointed out (though he said "130,000" by accident), there are 130,000,000 migrant workers in China, and during the holidays, they all want to go in one direction, making the logistics of such an operation difficult at best (as one can see from the scenes involving the 600,000 stranded passengers).

Now, if you don't want to know the fate of the Zhangs, I suggest that you skip the following two paragraphs. [LAST WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]  Fan is still in contact with members of the family. They are still apart.  Suqin, the mother, lost her job during the financial crisis (as shown in the movie) and decided to go back home.  Last year, the economy picked up, so she decided to go back to work.  During the year that she was home, her son Yang became #1 in his class (during the film, he's #5).

[SPOILERS CONTINUE]  The star of this movie, however, is Quin.  When Fan started filming Last Train Home, Quin was sixteen.  Now twenty years old, she is fully asserting her independence as a young woman of the world.  Last time they talked, she had moved back to Guangzhou in search of a job, but was currently unemployed (she had been working elsewhere, but had been laid off).


Questions from the audience followed.  As to why people don't just stay in the countryside, Fan explained that "everyone wants to leave, find job, get rich."  In fact, he doubts that China is still a communist country, since everyone is after individual wealth these days.

The second question had to do with a line that Quin's parents deliver to her while she's being disobedient: "We tolerated you for so long."  Fan explained that the translation is not at fault: rather, that Quin's parents had put up with her antics before and had tolerated them, which is how that line should be read, not that they "tolerate" her existence.

One of the most important components in regards to the success of a documentary such as this is in gaining the subjects' total trust.  Fan said that the Zhangs didn't open up entirely that first year, but that he helped build their trust by encouraging his three man crew (the cameraman, the soundman-who is Fan's older brother-and an assistant) to hang out with the family, even when not filming them.  For the scenes at the train station, he'd buy tickets separately for the crew, on various days.  If the Zhangs couldn't get a ticket for that day, he'd return those tickets.  Since they are always in demand, he said it wasn't that big of a problem.

The final question had to do with whether or not he paid the subjects of his film.  Since it's a documentary, he did not, beyond basic necessities that the family sometimes needed (like oil and rice).  Now, however, he's trying to raise money for them, particularly to pay for Yang's education.  Eye Steel Film, the company that produced this movie, also distributed the movie Up the Yangtze, in which they raised enough funds to keep three of the children in that film in school.

After the Q & A session was over, Fan made his way into the theater lobby, where I met up again with my friends and got one of them to take a photo of me and the director.  It didn't quite work out as planned.   I got to shake his hand and thank him for coming to Seattle (at least, that's what I think I said: I really have no idea if the words that came out of my mouth made any sense at all), but as soon as I asked for a photo, a Chinese girl came over and asked for the same thing.  And then a whole group of Chinese girls moved in.  Realizing that I wasn't going to get a photo on my own with Fan, and realizing that the girls didn't mind if I was in their photo with him (though I was nudged out of the way so that they could all be seen), I posed alongside them:

You'll notice that I'm not in the center of the picture.  One of the friends I had run into, and the only Caucasian, yelled out while we were posing that I should stand in the middle of all of them, which got a laugh from Fan.  I told my friend later that I had been pushed out of the way.

"You moved out of the way!" he retorted.

Anyway, this doesn't even show all of the Chinese girls who were in the photo.  This one does, though I like the first one better:

Though I gave this film a 5 out of 5 on my ballot, I immediately wondered if that were so.  Strangely enough, this film was the hardest film of the festival to rate, perhaps because I went into it with such high expectations.  The middle two-thirds of the film was great, but I was thrown by the arc of the beginning, mainly because events happened quicker than I had been led to believe.  And then I felt disappointed at the ending, but mainly for the same reason that I felt disappointed when Hoop Dreams ended: I didn't want it to end.

So, it was certainly better than a 4 (especially with such powerful scenes as the ones I've listed above), but the pacing and climax didn't quite make it a 5.  Of course, these numbers are arbitrary, anyway, and I may end up seeing this movie again and deciding that it deserves a 5.

Here, then, is my final assessment: this is a damn good film.  Whether or not it's better or worse than any other film or documentary that I saw during the festival is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that I would see it again in a heartbeat.  On a big screen.  With a brighter bulb.  In focus.

For now, I give it a 4.5 out of 5.

Note: Grace Wang's review of the film can be found here and here.


  1. I would like to see this to learn a bit about the new China. I'm intrigued by those "beautiful vistas and the sea of humanity".

  2. Another reason for me to seek this film out, thanks to your specific, descriptive, and expressive review.

    "Watching someone hold in tears is much sadder than seeing those tears fall." First let me brag about how great a writer you are. When will that novel come out? The quote is so true, it's saddening and heartbreaking.

    Giving a film a 4.5 rather than a 5 is not the issue. Ratings are overrated, it's the words of a review that matter, and the lining up of your words do the film justice. Not that I've seen the film but I Can tell.

    Will this documentary get a wide-release or a DVD release? I know it's too early to predict but I get the feeling that it's a very moody picture and I love the type.

    Your description of the scenes, particularily the one where the camera catches her dancing is excellent. I love it when documentaries capture these rare real-life moments. Moments that don't need the use of cheesy-Hollywood-style dialogue, you know..a slice of life.

    Best Regards,
    Wael Khairy

  3. Oh, I forgot. I love the picture. It's nice getting to see you like that. I'm sure we'll meet in reality as well. Anyway, thanks for posting the picture. You're always so shy hiding behind that "Literary Dreamer" alias :)

  4. @ S M
    Just make sure you see a good print on quality equipment. I mean, the quality of the trailer on Youtube was better than what I saw!

    @ Wael
    You can brag all you want. :-) I usually avoid rating films for the reason you mentioned, but since we had ballots...

    I'm hoping this gets a wide release. The subject would be fascinating, even if it weren't so well made. Which reminds me, there was one thing I forgot to tell the director after that photo above was taken, and which I forgot to add in this review, so I'll say it now: Lixin Fan, xie xie.

    Yes, I've decided to become a little less shy since my blog's one year anniversary, though I had two reasons for not putting up any photos on this blog of me before that time: 1.) I wanted to remain mysterious :-), and 2.) I wanted people to focus on the words in these posts, not the author (and still do).


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